As far as contemporary music makers go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a talent the caliber of Andrew Bird. In Hollywood, we’d call him a “triple threat” — a performer as capable of penning a great tune as hitting the high notes, whistling the bridges, and shredding the violin. And yes, I do mean shredding. He’s a poetic lyricist, a deft wielder of melodies, and a quietly sharp mind, and (not surprisingly) in concert he exceeds even his loftiest hype.
On Thursday, fans old and new were treated to an intimate — and way sold out — Andrew Bird performance on campus at UCSB. Billed as a solo show, the evening found Bird sitting in with openers The Handsome Family for a few numbers, as well as hitting the stage on his own for a set that felt, sounded, and oftentimes appeared far larger than the sum of its parts. It all started quietly with the sparse plucks of “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” a number which Bird later confessed he’d hand-selected earlier in the day, inspired by a shoreline bike ride and the oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel. The song — a somber symphony about the planet’s depleting resources — and its backstory, which Bird delivered with bashful poignancy after its close, set the tone for the evening. This was going to be a comfortable night marked by moments of pure, surprising beauty.
Alone at the two mike setup, and armed with two guitars and his trusty violin, Bird proceeded to fill the room with an intricate and dazzling collection of sounds. Working with a series of looping pedals, Bird conjured his own backing band with a few flicks of the switch, building album favorites like “Three White Horses” and “I Want to See Pulaski at Night” from little noises to full-blown, swelling orchestrations.
Amongst the highlights, early contender “A Nervous Tic” found Bird coyly starting and stopping himself in time with the song’s tic-like progression, flexing his whistling muscles as he went along. Later in the set, a cover of Townes van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” provided a handful of chill-inducing moments, unnerving as much for their lyrical content as for Bird’s confidently emotion-filled deliveries.
All along the way, Bird found moments to employ his signature Specimen Spinning Double Speaker Horn, which whirred behind him for a handful of songs. The speaker worked wonders, too, filling Campbell Hall’s cavernous space with a wall of sound that seemed to hit you in the chest and wash over you like a wave all at the same time.
That Bird has long been heralded as a must-see act on the indie music scene is no surprise; his violin prowess alone is enough to draw crowds. But alone onstage last Thursday, Bird proved himself as more than a man worthy of his accolades; he showed us what it means to be a true performer.