The evening started with a charming, bespectacled Micah P Hinson; he serenaded the audience in a deep Texan drawl, accompanied by endearingly sentimental country chords, bouts of dry wit and eventually his wife. (It has to be said that the man is pretty handy with a guitar for someone who lost use of his hands for months following a car accident.) He left after informing us that in case we were wondering, his name is not, in fact, Pendergrass, and before I knew it, a warm, expectant city of people grew around me and a hush fell upon the concert hall.
When introducing the work of any musician, it’s tempting to fall back on hackneyed phrases – in this case, “indie folk sensation,” “multi-instrumentalist Chicago native,” “whistling violin virtuoso” – but the thing about Andrew Bird is that he dodges and defies labels and genres by the sole nature of his music, which is so much more than the signature whistling and quirky lyrics. He’s one of those rare performers who are not only talented, but also wicked smart; genuinely impassioned, but self-aware. And, in terms of the show he puts on, more or less peerless.
He strolls on with an instrumental violin piece which melts into Why?, a track from the Bowl of Fire years. He once stated that he considers a live performance the most honest representation of who he is as a musician, and it soon becomes clear why; Bird builds elaborate multi-layered structures right in front of the audience’s eyes, stripped from the barrier of recording and glittering with the sheer joy of being able to share his creative genius.
The presence of a backing band puts appealingly simple rock energy into tracks from Armchair Apocrypha and The Mysterious Production Of Eggs – after you hear Fiery Crash or A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left live, the studio versions, however good in and of themselves, will forever seem slightly pale in comparison. Sovay was especially impressive, with Andrew eloquently rolling out surrealist verses he once described as approaching hip-hop in their flow.
As well as revisiting well-loved classics, the band experimented with some songs from the recently released album Hands of Glory. “This one’s inspired by all the weather anomalies, droughts, monsoons, hurricanes, that have been going on recently,” Bird mutters into the microphone as he starts to pluck out the opening notes of Something Biblical, “the ones in the real world as well as the ones in my head.”
After he finally disappeared, the audience managed to lure him out again for an instrumental and the crowning number of the night – a brilliant rendition of Fake Palindromes.
One doesn’t want to be trite and use the word ‘unmissable,’ but the sight of Mr Bird in the Roundhouse’s smoky lighting, hair sticking up in unruly tufts from being continually combed through in fits of excitement, one hand now gesturing wildly above his head, the other beating out a rhythm on the glockenspiel, the neck of a guitar sticking out from behind him like a wing – well, it’s something to behold.