Words: Alex Wood | Photos: Heidi Peters
Andrew Bird’s performance at Pritzker Pavilion was one of the best shows in Chicago this summer.
It’s a bold statement, but hear me out.
I saw countless shows in the last four months. From big names like Phish, LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam and Wilco to small, equally impressive performances from the likes of Twin Peaks and Ryley Walker.
Yet no other band understood and connected to their audience like Bird.
For the last four years, Bird embraced a softer, acoustic sound influenced by traditional folk and country. His tours featured simpler versions of his songs, country harmonies, slide guitar and acoustic picking, often replacing the violin loops and electric instrumentation longtime fans had come to expect.
In truth, the songwriter had been moving to a gentler sound since 2007’s beloved Armchair Apocrypha, though fans embraced the new direction for 2009’s Noble Beast and 2012’s Break It Yourself.
To put it simply, from a longtime fan and follower, Bird had since hit a slump that felt a little too comfortable, or maybe just too easy, for a musician and songwriter of his talent.
And to again put it simply, the old Bird is officially back.
The four-piece band took the stage and immediately dove into dense layers of looping, Bird’s legato violin notes flowing in endless directions, creating a mass of ambience that filled the park’s spacious entirety, helped by his infamous spinning double horn speakers. (Designed and crafted by a Chicago artist, the speakers were missing at previous dates of the tour.)
The instrumental improvisation led straight to “Capsized,” the first track from Bird’s excellent new album, Are You Serious.
The opposite of its ambient introduction, the song flaunts a pop-influenced sound, with a big, crashing drumbeat and powerful electric bass driving the track. Bird’s epic violin riff and dramatic, melodic vocals matched the venue’s beauty with perfection.
From the first track alone, Bird had clearly departed from his country phase. This is precisely the kind of rock that had been missing for years, and dammit it felt good to hear.
Bird maintained the high energy with fan-favorite “A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left,” adjusting the vocal phrasing with humorous quips throughout, the big, electric sound still intact.
“It’s good to be back in my hometown. I love this city, and I spent 36 years of my life here,” Bird said, specifically mentioning the nearby Art Institute and Fine Arts Center.
Bird’s enthusiasm for being at Pritzker didn’t need to be said. It came through in his performance.
“Tenuousness” displayed his ability for dramatic vocals, his theatrical and almost excessive melodic sense fitting for the venue’s stage.
Throughout the night, simplistic but effective lighting shined different colors behind the band, changing the mood with each altered shade.
Bird performed eight songs from the new album, and each sounded spectacular.
“Are You Serious” featured a catchy, sing-along chorus that underlined the new album’s pop sensibility, but still featured extensive jamming from the violinist. “Truth Lies Low” featured effects pedals common in funk shows, its highly rhythmic and looped backing an opportunity for Bird to solo on electric guitar.
“Roma Fade” was practically a dance song, its upbeat, pounding bass and simplistic, quarter-note drumbeat unprecedented in Bird’s back-catalogue.
“Heretics” proved to be the night’s biggest rarity, the song performed rarely since its 2007 release.
Bird claimed he had “just dusted this one off,” and called it “almost old enough to feel like I’m covering someone else’s song.”
The return of the song, a straightforward rock tune featuring distorted electric guitar, highlighted exactly what made the night so special.
Not only was Bird returning to a more rock-oriented sound with Are You Serious, but the artist was also selecting songs from his discography that would fit their vibe in the live setting.
Again, Bird is back with a true return to form.
Even “Left Handed Kisses,” a song recorded as a soft folk number on the new album, was beefed up with electric guitars and pounding drums, opener Margo Price lending her Nashville-country vocals in the duet as Bird strummed his violin.
Even on the simplest song, the band sounded like there were eight people on stage.
“Three White Horses” saw the largest transformation, its generally serene, acoustic style turned into an upbeat electric rock song, climaxing at the final verse with such brute power that it nearly sounded punk and featuring a blistering solo from the lead guitarist.
Always conscious of his music and the audience’s expectations, Bird kept the song’s ending the same as previous tours, finishing with a stack of vocal loops, whistling and violin runs that was practically a high point of any show featuring the track.
As a spinning disco ball provided lighting for “Plasticities,” it occurred to me just how big of a change this album, tour and show displayed. This is a new era for Bird, and, not inconsequently, amongst the best performances I had seen from him since 2008.
Every song in the main set featured the same enormous sound, and not one faltered even slightly. Equally unbelievably, the forecasted storms had missed the city entirely, allowing the outdoor audience to at least stay dry in the muggy, 90-degree heat.
The encore showed Bird’s lighter, more traditional side, with the songwriter performing unplugged into a single microphone with the bassist and guitarist.
“Give It Away” came as no surprise, as the artist had been performing it in such a way for years. However, Neil Young’s “Harvest” proved to be a real treat, the band’s natural sense of the folk tradition coming through in each verse’s harmonies, Bird soloing on violin between.
Are You Serious’s “The New Saint Jude” was given the same folk treatment, proving that the songwriter could transform his compositions in any way he wished.
The band returned to their electric instrumentation to close with “Fake Palindromes.” A true staple in Bird’s live shows that had been largely absent in recent years, the song was given the artist’s usual treatment, stretching verses out and changing the phrasing of each recognizable line to avoid becoming overly familiar, the audience still clapping along throughout.
Bird’s return to his hometown also proved to be a return to form, and the artist hasn’t sounded so revitalized in nearly a decade.
Check out the setlist and Heidi's full gallery below.
1. Instrumental Intro > Capsized
2. A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left
4. Are You Serious
7. Truth Lies Low
8. Puma (?)
9. Left Handed Kisses (with Margo Price)
10. Roma Fade
11. Three White Horses
13. Valleys Of The Young
14. Pulaski At Night
15. Scythian Empires
16. Give It Away
17. Harvest (Neil Young cover)
18. The New Saint Jude
19. Fake Palindromes