Andrew Bird + John Grant – The Music Box, San Diego 5/13/16

The typical way I decide what show to go to is to notice that a band is coming to town, and then as long as it isn’t a horrible venue, just buy the tickets.  This time I went the other way around – after having such a great experience at The Music Box during the recent Redwoods Revue, I started actively looking for good shows at this downtown location.  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds since they seem to book more mainstream acts or at least bands that didn’t interest me at all.  Then I noticed this show.  I had never heard of Andrew Bird before this but I was very familiar with the opener, John Grant, as his last three albums, Queen of Denmark, Pale Green Ghosts and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (see my 2015 Top 20) have all received extensive play on my turntable.

Grant’s sound is full of melodic hooks, both in the music and his vocals, and there is an abundance of humor found throughout his lyrics.  But these ear-worm melodies and amusing lines also co-exist with very intense subject matter and personal experiences.  For this supporting tour, Grant, who is from Colorado but now resides in Iceland, was backed by a keyboardist and an acoustic guitarist.  Grant himself would switch from piano, to synthesizer, to just standing at the mic. In between songs he was warm and funny and gave some context for the often sardonic stories his songs tell.

His music is hard to pin down – at one point my wife asked, “what genre would you call this?”  The best I could come up with was, “new wave, indie, chamber-pop” – so I’m going to stick with that!  Grant and his back-up players’ musicianship were outstanding and his rich-baritone was resonant throughout the set. The mix of musicianship, melody, humor and personal storytelling is exemplified perfectly in the song “Sigourney Weaver” (here is a  clip from this show: SW clip).  The song is gorgeous, catchy, and very funny – but it clearly masks a deeper meaning for Grant – as if he’s telling us about some personal feeling or experience that he’s only willing to give us hints about.

Here is the title track off Grant’s latest LP (with a long intro): Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

Apparently I was in the clear minority of fans at this show who weren’t familiar with Andrew Bird, as the Music Box was sold out, quite crowded, and very enthusiastic.  I’m sure my experience of this show would have been quite different had I not secured one of the second level “opera boxes” which feature a perfect view of the stage and VIP service (thanks to Aubrey for taking great care of us and for bringing my wife those Flor de Paloma cocktails!). But I did and I was able to see and hear what all the fuss was about.

It was clear from the start that Bird is adept at several instruments – we saw him play violin, guitar and glockenspiel – as well as singing and whistling!  I have since learned that Bird earned his first acclaim as a player in the swing/jazz/rock band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  He then formed a short-lived  swing/jazz band called Bowl of Fire before setting out on his own as a solo-artist.  And it looks like I have some catching up to do since it turns out that he is already 11 albums into his solo carreer!

For now all I have to go on is what I saw on the stage at The Music Box.  Bird seems almost like a one-man-band who just happened to have three musicians (guitar, bass and drums) accompanying him.  The violin was his main instrument – and he played it both with a bow and by plucking or strumming it – but he also had a distinctive style on the glockenspiel and would pick up a guitar for some songs. To broaden the sound, Bird also employed looping effects to lay down his own backing track, which he would then activate with pedals.

Like John Grant before him, it is not easy to label Andrew Bird’s sound.  I certainly didn’t hear any remnants of the Zippers, but there was an eclectic mix of classical, indie-rock, folk, and pop that might change from one song to another or coexist within the same track. And oh yes – that whistling!  I’ve seen just a couple rock singers whistle (I’m thinking of Neil Young and Eddie Vedder) but this was something else completely!  Bird wouldn’t just use the whistle as an accent – he would build the song around it.  Really, I’ve never seen or heard anything like it and I was reminded of a British folk singer/songwriter that my dad liked named Roger Whittaker (check out this Whittaker song, “Finnish Whistler” – it’s amazing!).

Here is Andrew Bird playing “Fake Palindrones” at The Music Box.

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