all words: Shona Fenner
all photos: Chris Svetlik
Andrew Bird has long had his three-show stint at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue completely sold out. It all makes sense because the venue and the music were perfect for the beginning of the holiday season.
Gezelligheid loosely translates from Dutch to mean “coziness”. The meaning in its original language is a little more complex with additional meanings of warmth, sociability, and a joyous atmosphere. All of these things appropriately describe this concert experience and the night itself. This warm coziness was definitely needed since the temperatures dropped to below freezing, something we are just getting used to. So sitting and listening inside a gorgeous place of worship, such as the historic synagogue, was idyllic. Nobody had told me this was going to be a super romantic show, but all around me were happy little couples with their arms around each other blissfully in love and blissfully enjoying the performance. I’m not saying I was jealous; just that is was difficult to disregard.
The first act of the evening was Julianna Barwick. Her music is impressive, unique, and includes hardly any discernible lyrics. She loops her own voice and vocal percussion until you forget the one track that started it all. If I had not been watching I would have assumed the tail ends of each piece were from some astounding experimental choir, not this unassuming solo a’cappella talent. Julianna combines the loops of her voice in what seems like slow motion and transfers you somewhere else without even an understandable word to inspire you. I was beyond impressed with her and invite you to listen to some of her songs on her myspace because you will be just as impressed.
After we all nearly had a religious experience in the synagogue with Julianna Barwick it was Andrew Bird’s turn to give us a singular and eccentric musical experience. Andrew Bird is an accomplished singer-songwriter, guitarist, violinist, and whistler. He played almost all the show with his shoes off and bright red socks that suggested an element of Christmas cheer (in a synagogue).
The set was straightforward and intimate, using the violin as the primary instrument. His vocals are looped on tape to create more dimensions and everything is amplified in the historic synagogue with large megaphones, just like the ones on old gramophone players. He also had a pair of smaller horns that could be turned on to spin around to manipulate and move the sound in yet another way. He would loop everything from humming or xylophone, to strumming or plucking the violin. Each of these looped tracks had to be relatively short, but played combined they created a steady rhythm and suddenly became something much bigger then just a few 20-second tracks. The combination of simple vocal or instrumental elements from both artists of the night with their electronic aids really made this experience quite different than what I am used to.
The music that he played was perfect for the space. It seemed somewhat reverent while still being lighthearted and often adapted to the winter holiday spirit. Most of the show was instrumental with more violin than voice. This seemed like Andrew Bird was showing us his true musicianship instead of trying to put on a poppy and entertain show. He even messed up a few times and would start over, chuckling about his mistakes. This first show may have been a bit of a warm-up but that just made it seem more genuine to me. He did spend some time storytelling to the audience and explaining his methods and songs.
He began his second song claiming he was feeling stiff and that he was going to play an old standby from Bowl Of Fire, “Why” which evidently always helps. By the end of it everything seemed flawless. After applause Bird said he had been feeling “emotionally congested” and the song had cleared him up.
He played an hour and a half set full of new or often unheard songs with some explanations between them. He spoke about experiences in his childhood and how he had written a certain song for a movie that didn’t take it for some reason, even though he was certain it was lyrically perfect. After awhile Andrew Bird played a favorite of mine “Plasticities” and said it was because he “thought you probably don’t know any of these.” He was right but that didn’t matter because the acoustics and his talent made them beautifully familiar. Sitting in the balcony was the best as far as sound acoustics was considered. Closing my eyes and just hearing the layers of looped elements convinced me how earnestly and honestly Andrew Bird was presenting his music.
The show was not all merry holiday feelings however. He played a song his guitarist had written about how people got trampled shopping on Black Friday. He also had a song he had written after the big BP oil spill. It was all a very anti-consumerist message to a completely sold out space. But these moments seemed pretty dark for folk pop that typically doesn’t mention the news of the day, but they didn’t last long. Each of these darker moments would be followed by a light-hearted melody or one of the old favorites that we would recognize. What are the holidays if nobody is messing with your emotions, right?
He ended with a Handsome Family song as we all sat enraptured and not quite wanting it to be over. Once it was all over people gave an ovation and hurried out to the merch table and then to the freezing cold outside. Like I said, this is not the kind of concert I am used to but I was totally converted almost immediately.
Happy Hanukkah kiddies!