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Bird Calls

music_AndrewBirdMulti-instrumentalist Andrew Bird goes loopy in church
It’s kind of appropriate that Andrew Bird hails from the Windy City. If you’ve never heard the anointed expert whistler pucker his lips, it sounds like an eerie breeze through the trees, maybe more akin to extraterrestrial avifauna or solar wind than anything earthbound. One might call them Bird calls.

Forming his mouth more like an instrument than an organ, it’s no surprise that the multi-talented indie darling Mr. Bird is slated for two nights at the Rio Theatre, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28 and 29.

“The whistling came out of playing the violin,” explained the multi-instrumentalist to online publication IndieLondon in 2009. “The violin is an extremely painful instrument to learn to play and the whistling was so casual. There’s a certain geometry and fluidity to it.”

 

Bird’s background is in classical music, graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in violin performance, so it’s no surprise that his other instrumental forays derive from that. The 37-year-old began his career among the ’90s swing revival as a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers before moving on to a solo career initially tagged as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. Since branching out, Bird has become a veritable artisan to the NPR crowd, and has cemented himself as one of Coachella Music Festival’s stalwarts—again landing himself a spot on 2011’s bill.

It’s been two years since Bird has released an album of original material—Noble Beast and the accompanying Useless Creatures—but just last month the violin, guitar, mandolin and glockenspiel-proficient Bird released the fourth installment of his live Fingerlings series. Recorded at a Chicago Presbyterian church, the album may well offer some insight into what fans can expect this weekend at the Rio.

Although Bird recorded his last two studio albums with the same drummer and bassist backing him, and had subsequently moved his live shows more toward a band dynamic, last winter’s church mini-tour saw Bird playing completely solo. Although the latest Fingerlings album is very much reflective of its organic, creaky church setting, it’s also perhaps Bird’s finest work with a loop pedal, enlarging his sound to fit the cavernous hall.

“It is a bit disorienting at first as to where the sound is coming from, and is what you're hearing at the moment really what I'm playing now or what I played 12 seconds ago ...?” Bird confessed to Clashmusic.com in 2009. “I get confused, sure, but I can visualize the loop and its shape. It’s like a cloud that hangs between me and the audience and I can crawl between the notes and carve away a little E from the top while I add more G at the bottom.”

The result on Fingerlings 4 is fairly stunning; an orchestral sound emanating from one man, backed by the kind of terse string plucking that’s become characteristic of Bird’s catalogue. Ironically, though the loop pedal may be a modern invention of technology, Bird learned to efficiently use the medium in the most rustic of settings.

“I was living full-time at my barn in rural Illinois and messing around with this looping pedal,” Bird continued. “Having a lot of time on your hands is pretty key to mastering live looping, where the timing has to be precise. The looping forces limitations on your songwriting in a good way, I think. You have to boil the song down to its basic elements for it to work.”

Indeed, it may be an oxymoron to describe a sound as orchestral and minimal simultaneously, but this is the backwoods feeling created by Bird’s latest live album. Though one man creates a certain homogeny of sound, use of the loop pedal creates the audio equivalent to bouncing a laser off a mirror—going every which way in a perfectly straight line.

 


Andrew Bird performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28 and 29, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are sold out. For more information call 423-8209.

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