Bird takes wing in concert

When I’m not at the theater, chances are I’m at a concert. This week I finally got to see one of my favorite artists live at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

Bird watching at the Fillmore has its rewards, especially if the bird in question is Andrew Bird, one of pop music’s mavericks.

Few singer-songwriters multi-task the way Bird does in concert. He sings and plays the guitar. Nothing unusual there. He also plays the violin like a mad genius, whistles with the clarity and purity of a flute and — here’s the real distinction — plays the glockenspiel.

Bird’s sold-out Fillmore show Tuesday follows buzz-worthy appearances at the big music festivals: South by Southwest in Texas and last weekend’s Coachella in southern California.
Tuesday’s hour and 45-minute show featured Bird — sort of the thinking person’s James Blunt _ ably supported by bassist Jeremy Ylvisake and percussionist and electronics whiz Martin Dosh.

Here’s how a typical Bird song — let’s choose “Fiery Crash,” a cheery number about the fear of flying _ goes in concert. Bird lays down a musical foundation using a multi-track loop. He’ll record a few interesting measures on his violin and, using his feet to control the buttons, play them back and add some whistling and/or glock.

The resulting sound can make Bird’s violin sound like a chamber orchestra. Combine that with his Silvertone electric guitar and the other sounds, and he’s a one-man marching band.

Pulling primarily from 2005’s “Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs” and this year’s “Armchair Apocrypha,” Bird and his band turned what are, on the record, three- and four-minute gems into protracted loops of sound that push, pull and swirl into musical tornadoes.

Not every tune got the full-on, multi-layered treatment. “Heretics” provided a welcome oasis of straightforward, no-frills pop (that called to mind the Belle & Sebastian sound), but for the most part, Bird concentrated on turning songs like “Masterfade,” “Plasticities” and “Dark Matter” into jams that _ as jams often do _ began to sound alike.

Sometimes the bombast worked in a song’s favor, as on the epic “Scythian Empires,” which blossomed under Bird’s symphonic treatment.

But other tunes, such as “Fake Palindromes” and “Armchairs,” grew wearying, and though the likable Bird is capable of a sort of dry, intellectual humor — he paused Tuesday night to introduce the audience to a fan-created sock monkey dressed in a suit and carrying a violin case — his musical approach is deadly serious, and he often seemed lost in a sonic world of his own creation.

Such commitment to the creation of interesting sounds is one of the reasons Bird’s albums are so rich and fulfilling. But in concert, Bird tends to fly off in loop-the-loops, leaving his audience behind — entertained but not quite satisfied.

For a guy who used to play with the retro-swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers, you hold out hope that he’ll lighten up some, or at least lay off the special effects. Whistling is great and so is a glockenspiel, but do we need to hear them on song after song?

Andrew Bird is what you might call an NPR rocker. He’s got talent and gusto and brains to spare, but there comes a point in his live show when you want less challenge, less complexity and more simple beauty, which is already there — it’s just a little overwhelmed.

Visit Andrew Bird’s official Web site at

Here’s Mr. Bird in action:

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