How the indie folk genre’s most beloved introvert made it on to the Sydney Opera House main stage is a mystery, but we can be forever grateful it happened after a gentle, joyous Saturday evening spent with Andrew Bird.
Ostensibly touring in support of Are You Serious, Bird took the opportunity to cover the breadth and depth of his 20 years’ recording, lifting from his time with Bowl Of Fire alongside the new records’ highlights, and a few covers for good measure.
Bird’s prolificacy goes without saying – across the night, his fingers alighted on guitar strings, glockenspiel mallets, piano keys and loop pedals with equal skill. But his dual first loves went hand-in-hand – the violin and the whistle that makes his namesake seem so perfectly fitted.
For opener ‘Hole In The Ocean Floor’ and later ‘Weather Systems’ (the night’s closer and its deepest cut), Bird took to the stage alone, looping over himself in ever-complexifying, baroque patterns. It’s hard enough as a listener to keep every thread he weaves in focus; how Bird himself conjures up and maintains such labyrinthine compositions solo is beyond belief. A glance around the stage and a confused gesture indicated his guitar hadn’t yet materialised, cutting through the serious atmosphere as Bird’s wry sense of humour often does.
When his band finally came to the stage, diving into ‘Capsized’, they proved a perfect match. Drummer Ted Poor summoned up serious Whiplash vibes with his impeccably controlled playing, and guitarist Steve Elliott saved Bird from overlooping with exceptional vocal harmonies. The band took on Bird’s humour osmotically, keeping the whole evening light and warm.
Establishing themselves as poster boys for Americana, Bird and band also dipped into the well of country music – a taste of Bird’s album of Handsome Family covers, ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’, invoked the requisite misery of the alt-folk scene, while a surprise take on Neil Young’s essential ‘Harvest’ poured like honey through the confines of the Concert Hall.
The man’s strength has never been in banter, which Bird avoided for the most part, feeling the need to explain himself only in the absence of Fiona Apple (for the duet in ‘Left Handed Kisses’, in which he played both roles using “dramatic blocking”) and before the self-effacing deconstruction of ‘Are You Serious’.
He hardly needs conversation, given his potency as a storyteller. He sells every emotional movement with conviction, and behind his diffident exterior is the erudite lyricist, undercut with a sly wink.
Leaving the valleys of the young, despite his protestations, has only strengthened Bird’s songwriting and power as a live performer. Fingers crossed he can talk Fiona into joining him the next time he flies back our way.
Andrew Bird played the Sydney Opera House on Saturday April 15. Photo by Prudence Upton.