Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Andrew Bird at the Civic Opera House

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andrewbird


He's inordinately fond of whistling and old-timey Tin Pan Alley sounds. When his melodies aren't pointlessly complex, they're merely unnecessarily serpentine. And his lyrics are inscrutable and rife with $10 words unknown outside the thesaurus.

Any way you cut it, Chicagoan Andrew Bird is a most unlikely contender in the "American Idol" universe. But a pop star he has nonetheless become, with his new album "Noble Beast" recently debuting in the Top 20 on the Billboard albums chart, and a triumphant homecoming to two sold-out shows at the Civic Opera House.

Strolling onstage in his plaid thrift-store sports coat and tie at the first of these gigs on Thursday, the perpetually boyish Bird did some pizzicato violin-plucking, a bit of high-register yodeling and some low bass humming, using a foot pedal to digitally loop and layer these sounds until they formed the oddly orchestrated backing of his opening salvo.

"When I was just a little boy/I threw away all my action toys/And I became obsessed with Operation," sang the lad who no doubt once reveled in his junior chemistry set and home ant farm, as well as that old board game with the tiny tweezers and annoying buzzer, and things were off and running in their willfully eccentric way.

"I've always wanted to play here and never really thought I would," Bird said a short time later, surveying the regal setting and recounting his first visit at age 19, when he was dating a girl in the chorus.

At that point, the artist was joined by his three backing musicians on bass, guitar and drums. Though they were all fine players, Bird had been better off on his own, because then one could at least marvel at the novelty of his computer-enhanced one-man band (a trick borrowed from Kanye West's pal Jon Brion, by the way).

As the quartet navigated through the torturous waters of tunes such as "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left," "Anonanimal" and "Natural Disaster" (which prompted Bird to tell the same story about the Lusitania that he spun during a fawning interview with NPR's "All Things Considered"), the pretensions and the preciousness swamped the humble charms of his calculated shtick.

Heavy-handed dynamic shifts were no substitute for real musical drama, his whiny voice soon wore thin and the cold calculation of all those Rubik's Cube arrangements could not mask the sterile soullessness and lack of genuine emotion that remains the inescapable obstacle for this listener.

The biggest exception to these gripes: "The Giant of Illinois," which ended the set proper. Alas, that wasn't a Bird song but a cover by Chicago-to-New Mexico transplants the Handsome Family.

In the end, I could have a better Bird-like evening if I stayed home and started a stamp collection while playing a game of Scrabble limited to words in Latin as the History Channel airs a documentary about bread lines during the Great Depression in the background. And every couple of minutes, just for the heck of it and just like Andrew, I'd be sure to whistle while I worked.

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42 Comments

"sterile soullessness"? Looks like Andrew isn't the only one with a thesaurus. Jim, once again your review is in direct opposition to the overwhelming satisfaction of everyone in the house tonight. Everyone was on their feet at the end, and no one wanted the show to end. You may have cataracts and too much ear wax these days...

Unfortunately it sounds like you missed the genius of Andrew Bird. You may be better suited to stay home and read a book about music. Your review is completely off the mark!

Hey Jim, was "Giant of Illinois" really the last song in the "set proper?"

From where I was sitting, it was the next-to-last song in the encore. He ended the night with another Handsome Family song. I'll let you call someone else to find out which one it was.

Jim, like most shows you attend, you never stay til the end and of course failed to mention the most heart-breaking moment of the night. Which was when he accidently miscued his handling of the violin and it went crashing in slow-motion to the ground, unable to catch it in time. It was truly a sad moment, but the show must go on, and go on they did! A superb performance if you ask me, who is a real fan of music and appreciates the effort these artists put in night in and night out.

I don't know why you go to concerts anymore when you are never satisfied with anyone's performance. Maybe Andrew Bird should write a whole album dedicated to you next time, will that make you pay attention to the true art that is being recreated on a stage in front of thousands of eager and hungry music fans? I'm guessing things in your world of cushy seats and private balcony arranged seating have higher standards. Oh well. Oh, and also it's usually a nice gesture to return a hello when someones greets you at a concert in the lobby. For the record you royally snubbed me in front of my guest for the evening, but it's ok, I got over it by watching a brilliant performance. Did you catch it?

I'd say your line about pretensions and preciousness swamping the humble charms of your calculated schtick would be more applicable to you, Dero, except its pretty clear that your schtick has no humble charm. Your masturbatory use of vocabulary and your review style is worse than Pitchfork, and pretty clearly marks you as a hypocrite.

Yes, I hope you feel really clever. The fact is, the pretensions and the preciousness of this review swamps the humble charms of this calculated shtick.


To say that this music is soulless is to completely discredit any further opinions you can muster. The unnecessary shots you take throughout this article are really disgraceful.

Really? Were you at the same concert as I was? I have to agree with Larry. That's a harsh review and at times seems unnecessarily personal in it's criticisms.

"In the end, I could have a better Bird-like evening if I stayed home and started a stamp collection while playing a game of Scrabble limited to words in Latin as the History Channel airs a documentary about bread lines during the Great Depression in the background. And every couple of minutes, just for the heck of it and just like Andrew, I'd be sure to whistle while I worked."

Wow, who is being "unnecessarily serpentine" now? Okay first of all, how can you knock someone for writing great lyrics? Just because your limited vocabulary can't handle the words he is throwing out at you doesn't mean you shouldn't look them up. Believe me, this is how you learn language. And if you don't understand the beauty of his string arrangements, or in your own $10 words, "cold calculation of all those Rubik's Cube arrangements," let me explain something to you: everyone else in the room loved it.

I guess what I am trying to say is, I have seen Andrew many times, and he didn't do anything too out of the ordinary compared to his usual performance (besides playing with the band.) If you weren't expecting his intellectual lyrics and lush string arrangements, then what were you expecting? Or did you go to the show expecting to write a scathing review? It pains me that someone who loves Andrew didn't get to see this show because someone like you used your press status to get a ticket. How did you get a job reviewing music for the Sun-Times anyway?

Huh? Andrew Bird is a virtuoso. It was an unbelievable experience to see and hear such a creative musical genius perform live. And at the Chicago Civic Opera House? An incredible gift for all of us who were there last night, not to mention a source of pride for Chicago!

How could you review this show without mentioning the effect the broken violin had on the rest of the set?

awesome, Jim. couldn't agree more.

I'm pretty disappointed with this take on last night's show. I gained a new respect for the breadth of Andrew Bird's talent. In my opinion, the live show puts to shame the studio albums you could listen to by yourself. To see him create such orchestration before your eyes was quite an impressive, wish I could see it again tonight.

Not sure what show you were watching jim but i agree w/ Larry's post...you must have some vision/hearing problems. Also...what's up w/ your review making fun of Bird? How old were you on Thurday night? I never figured out how you got your gig.

A sterile soullessness... what is with critics having to make interesting articles by picking on people. Phil Vettel's articles are the same way, amongst other writers I've seen, especially as of lately. The people writing these articles are people who have been writing about the goodness of expired ways of doing things, and need to lay their opinions to rest for a new generation who does not make personal attacks because they're old and cranky.

Andrew Bird was clearly bearing his soul to the audience with such delicacy in every sound he made, touching every part of his creation inside and out. His body twists and his knees melt almost as if he can't handle standing any longer while he swoons to the pristine sounds of his own voice. The floating, highly intelligent, and contemporary sound of his violin and an absolutely superlative pitch when he whistles could have raised the vibration of the entire city with the acoutics in the opera house.

Bird was trained playing the violin using the Suzuki method, a method I am quite familiar with, having learned the same way myself. It is a colorful method of learning to play by ear, learning by memorization and feeling, not reading black and white music.

For goodness sakes, the man had such an excitability about his performance he dropped and broke his violin - which I found incredibly endearing as this is probably one of the most prestigious venue's he has ever performed.

If a sterile soulnessness was felt by Andrew Bird, I would indeed need to question the sterile soullessness of one who would make such a comment.

I'll take a bit of middle ground here, and confess to some Bird reservations for some of Jim's complaints above, but I also think Dero is coming off a bit smug. And I don't think Jon Brion should get full credit for being the pioneer of eccentric modernized "one man band" shenanigans, lots of folks have been doing that for a long time. I'd actually point to Howe Gelb as Bird's influence in this regard, and I think Dero hates Howe, too.

This is a rather sorry excuse for a review. Bird is an incredible talent who put on one of the best concerts I've ever seen.

Not sure what show you were watching jim but i agree w/ Larry's post...you must have some vision/hearing problems. Also...what's up w/ your review making fun of Bird? How old were you on Thurday night? I never figured out how you got your gig.

way. off. base.

show was absolutely amazing.

What a "tenuous" review. If you really knew anything about his music you would know he doesn't care too much to make sense of his lyrics. He makes up words that fit with the music, nothing pretentious about it....and it's working pretty well because he seems to have quite a few followers. It seems as thought you're just one to always have to go against the crowd, which is worse than a thrift store sports coat.

Obviously you weren't at the same show as everyone else. Or were sleeping. Amazing show put on by Mr. Bird.

I agree with the $10 word assessment, and I kind of concur with the barely concealed swipe at Bird's naive, post-graduate, hipster supporters. And he doesn't do much to dispell the notion that he's got his nose way in the air as well. But you are way off on everything else.

The music was awesome. Bird now has three or four solid albums to fill his setlists with and Thursday's setlist was almost perfect. The band sounded great and the songs came more to life live.

You are embarrasingly wrong about the "pointlessly complex" melodies. Take a song like "Scythian Empires." The chord progression is B-A-E, over and over. If you break down his songs, you'll see they are similarly basic...which is what makes him a folk/rock guy...not some gypsy, Eastern Euro, Suzuki, whatever artist. The genius is the layering of sound and accoutrements that go into each song. He wouldn't be cracking Billboard if his melodies were based on some blend of math rock, Hungarian folk, and Beethoven.

Whoa!

That was brutal! I gotta go check this dude out just to hear for myself since all of these people are attacking your review as blasphemous!!

A vocabulary of words not often used, a taste for musical elements of a time now past, and a performer not creating some ridiculous persona certainly do not equate to pretentiousness and "sterile soullessness." I can't believe that anyone who believes themself a legitimate music critic would speak of such a talented man in such a way. I agree that he is better solo, but not because of novelty. Looping allows him to showcase his skill in playing multiple instruments, not the least of which is his whistling.

Who's more pretentious: the man who writes and sings smart lyrics and crafts beautifully complex songs, or the man who writes snarky comments about how he could've better spent his time that night?

I find it funny that you need to classify Bird's use of loop pedals as something "derivative" of Jon Brion. Would you then classify your work as a noble trick innovated by Sasha Frere-Jones (he used a computer too)? Might you have considered giving up your seat at the Civic Opera House to someone who isn't a mindless consumer of Dad Rock? Or did punk give you the right to franchise its namesake?

With critics like these, who needs critics?

Seriously? I saw both this show and the the show on Friday and, having seen Bird over 30 times over the last 12 years or so, including one with The Squirrel Nut Zippers, I think they were two of the best shows I've seen him do. The acoustics were miraculous and really allowed all the delicate layers he and his band create to shine through. Martin Dosch may be the most precise, machine-like drummer I've ever seen. He has to be to keep up with those incredibly bizarre rythms that Mr. Bird creates in his loops.

His performance style is not new at this point - he's been doing this particular type of performance for 4 or 5 years now. I have no idea what you were expecting - U2? REM? It's not rock or roll or r&b or soul or pop. It's Bird music. Don't try to compare it to anyone else - he certainly does not spend any time doing that. He is his own creation.

Mr. Bird is not a natural born performer. He's a uniquely talented - I would even say sublimely gifted - artist who would probably rather have stayed in his room playing the violin. I applaud the bravery that he has shown over the years to overcome his naturally painfully shy predisposition to let the world in on his amazing abilities. He's not trying to be your friend. He's trying to work something out and communicate it to you but he speaks his own language. He's found a performance style that works for him. He channels the music of the universe and tries to put it into a form that we mere mortals can appreciate. I can't imagine what it must sound like in his head but his live performances give me the closest experience to this that I can imagine.

I count every live performance I've ever heard of his music to be about 10 times better than any recorded version of any song he has ever written. I listen to the albums mostly to remind me of what an amazing live artist he is. Well, maybe I listen to The Swimming Hour to smile and enjoy Kevin O'Donnell's drumming.

He never does the same thing twice in his live performances, nor does he make any attempt to recreate an album version of his songs. The songs that were duplicated on the set list between the two nights were completely new on the second live version. Genius is too small a word to describe him. I feel privileged to have been a long-time fan of this rare, rare Bird.

This is a snarky review...filled to the brim with put-downs and snipes. I expected to read a more thoughtful review from this publication.

It's sad that newspapers and magazines employ writers with the same talent as any and every shrill and snide internet commentator or blogger. Newspapers and magazines are folding for various reasons, with a major reason being: there are millions of mediocre writers on the internet, and their writing is on par with this "professional" review.

Less dismissive attacks with personal slant, and more objective journalism, please?

I'll never begrudge another man his opinion, but I don't think Andrew Bird stole his use of the looping pedal from Jon Brion, but rather perhaps from his drummer Martin Dosh, who does the same thing, but to perhaps even greater effect during his own solo shows.

I guess my biggest problem with your review is that you spend about a paragraph talking about the actual music itself, and the rest of your time sharing your disgust with the sort of hipster-culture that surrounds artists like Bird (the same Hipsters whom without you would have little to no readers).

Honestly, you could have written this review without even attending the concert. If you'd paid attention instead of focusing your energy on how much you hate Bird (I'm going to hazard a guess at jealousy issues here) I think you may have found more than a little bit of soul in the amazing melodies he creates with his violin, the obvious passion he has for playing music, and his respect and admiration for a long list of diverse influences.

I'm about as impressed with your music writing as you were with Bird's performance.

Had to take jim to task.

It's hard for me to be completely objective about this review, as I have been a big fan of Mr. Bird for upwards of ten years. But there is a tasteless truculence and a bounty of genuine jealousy to this review that remains an inescapable obstacle to this reader. I have always suspected that music critics are small men that didn't have the chops to make it as musicians themselves, and are therefore continuously raging against those who make their tiny and flaccid talent seem so, so insignificant. Reviews with such baseless accusations of phoniness do absolutely nothing to disabuse me of that notion.

And while I agree that at his shows there are an inordinate amount of post-graduate hipster doofuses (doofi?), of which I am proudly one, it is because of that education that I didn't need a dictionary nor a thesaurus to properly use the word "truculence". And I'm not a "professional" writer.

Noted!

Satire, Jim. Only satire.

The Culturephiles

Andrew Bird April 9, 2009.

When does sound turn into noise? Come with me as I reveal that answer and many more as we ride the plastic-framed-glasses coaster through the Andrew Bird concert. And when did hyper-intellectual, self indulgent, I’m-going-to-wipe-your-face-with-my-history-book-and-pop-culture-allusions-until-your-kicked-out-of-Mensa music first appear on the scene?
Read This Review: http://lifeintheconcretejungle.blogspot.com

My god man, you are a real joke to journalism.

I wonder where you’ll be in five years…probably very hard to find.

Good luck grandpa, you ill tempered twit.

Good job Sun Times, another reader has less respect thanks to the backbiting bloated frog you stand by.

Andrew Bird's fans make me want to puke. Please get over yourselves. Insufferable is the perfect word to describe the whole sorry lot of them. So one music critic doesn't share your holier-than-thou beliefs. Move on and take your whiny rants somewhere else. I happen to think Bird is a true talent but he tries way too hard to create some uber-sophisticated image. Just be yourself.

Ironlung,

Way to lump all fans of AB in the same category. There are just as many annoyingly over-enthusiastic fans of Radiohead or Phish or U2 or Metallica or anyone for that matter out there. Doesn’t mean they ALL make me want to puke. Sheesh.

Yeah I think AB is a bit pretentious and he makes me cringe a little with his theatrics but man is he talented. Great voice, amazing on the violin and his sound is actually pretty unique amongst the Indie lot these days. You can’t judge an artist by his cheesy fan base. You can’t get made at the youth for it man. They’re just impressionable.

But Jim DeRogatis is a joke of a critic and I think he ought to get outright rebuked with as many, if not more posts. The guy is just bitter and obviously has no taste. Not for not liking AB but for his lack of anything resembling progressive journalism or honest, unbiased critique.

Why do you need to say something about it? Are you jaded, just like Jim?

Dude,

Have you read the previous posts? I need to say something about it bacause they need to be called out. So incredibly self-righteous. I don't care nor am I impressed with their Harvard-level vocabularies. It doesn't make them any more credible because they use big words. In fact, it comes off as extremely arrogant. Also, I'm not judging AB based on his fans. If that were the case, I would never listen to the guy. And yes, I am jaded. I'm sure there are some perfectly nice AB fans out there, but they're not represented well on this blog. They come across as highbrowed and elitist. Sorry, but I'm just calling it the way I see it.

I am probably one of the biggest Bird fans out there, but boy oh boy do I despise the "hipsters" who are his main followers, At both nights of his concert I felt I was being suffocated by their mothball smelling thrift store jackets or slacks they stole from their grandpas old closet. And every other dude there was wearing those dorky thick black rimmed glasses....like "Oh, please!! Tell me how nerdy I look!" It was like opening a book of "Where's Waldo" EVERYONE LOOKED THE SAME! Cooommmee oonn!!! Get over yourselves and your reviews, you're only feeding into this jag of a "critic"'s review. Andrew's amazing because of his jaw dropping beautiful music and he is unique for how he puts it together. To all: get your own style, maybe you thought you were unique 5 years ago when it was cool to be a nerd but now it's everywhere I turn I just want to trip you punks who wear 3 piece suits to run to a store and wear those 10 lb head phones.
Just think, you all are going to look back in 10/15 years and want to punch yourself in the face.

At every Bird show I've been to, I've always been amazed at the variety of people in the audience. Teenagers, college students, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50+, etc. Hipsters, nerds, whatever - I'm not sure how Bird's fans could be lumpted into one category.
I think he's amazing, and even if you're not into his music or style, you'd come across as pretty ignorant to deny his many talents. The man is singing with perfect pitch, multi-tasking with his looping and bowing, playing guitar, and in general performing lovely songs with lyrics that are actually interesting. I suppose the fact that he's a darling of the New York Times just annoys his hometown critics and makes them want to be contrary just for the simple sake of being contrary.

This has been touched on in earlier posts, but I think it needs emphasis.

JDR fashions himself a man of the people, appreciating the simple pleasures of good old rockist invention, a la The Hold Steady. He holds the working class values as aesthetic criteria, without really articulating the relationship of those values to his judgments. This is why he fails as a critic. There is not an earnestly "critical" statement in much of anything he writes. And this review is a vivid example of this fatal flaw of his.

He also works as a music journalist. However, there is no journalism here. His research was clearly limited to reviewing his dismissive prejudices against Bird's work (and the man himself, as he thinks he knows a thing or two about him), instead of familiarizing himself with the material either played that night or that provide context for what he has been up to for the last decade or so of his career. What could be more pretentious than trying to pass this review off as journalism? He doesn't even seem to have stayed for the entire show. I'm guess he bolted after about 20 minutes.

Newspapers are in trouble. Editors know that no one seeks out music journalism. Hence, JDR is a promising addition to one's masthead, given that he stokes strong feelings, rather than reflecting and reporting on his putative topics, critically or otherwise.

wow somebody has a personal thing against a harmless skinny guy who plays the violin wonderfully.

While I can't comment on this show as I was not there, I do think some of the stabs in this review aimed at Bird's music are really untrue from where I'm sitting. The thing that first hooked me on Andrew Bird was that he had these rambling verbose songs and somewhat progressive musical sensibility that somehow manages to NOT sound precious. Usually those elements together spell pretentious disaster (see Rush ... sorry prog fans). But Bird does it with this relaxed, playful delivery that just makes me like him more and more on each listen. Brilliant musician and songwriter.

I think it's an very easy shot to call Andrew Bird's beautiful music pretentious... and reeks of lazy journalism. Why can't his critics come up with anything more original to say? Probably because the man is so undeniably talented...

Perhaps they should also acknowledge that Bird can sound equally riveting when he simplifies things.

For those who like Bird to play in a more stripped-down style here's a good example of any so-called pretentiousness being thrown out of the mix...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRm8QbrZNpg

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on April 9, 2009 10:52 PM.

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