Andrew Bird put on a dazzling display of musicianship and personality on the NPR Music stage Thursday night. The veteran folk-rock multi-instrumentalist played a crisp set featuring four selections from his new LP My Finest Work Yet, all beautifully executed with the accompaniment of bass guitarist Alan Hampton and guitarist/vocalist Madison Cunningham — Bird added that Cunningham, who also performs as a singer-songwriter, has an “outstanding” full-length record of her own coming out in August.
Andrew Bird’s career has taken him to so many different places stylistically and personally, and has now grown more than twenty years long. My Finest Work Yet is his fifteenth studio album. When Bob Boilen — the NPR Music host whose desk has eclipsed him in mainstream fame — introduced Bird to the crowd, he mentioned that he first did an NPR story on Bird in 1998. Boilen called Bird “a man so filled with imagination and expression,” and described the wide range of Bird’s creative accomplishments, from orchestral performances to original ambient compositions to experimental violin performances. Bird’s records as a songwriter and bandleader have long been XPN favorites: two of the songs in Thursday’s set, “Sisyphus” and “Bloodless,” were XPN Gotta Hear Songs of the Week in January.
Bird opened the set on his own, riffing with his violin and loop pedal; he began with a gentle, inquisitive pizzicato and built up from there. Looped layers began to interlock and intertwine until he finally put his bow to the strings and produced brilliant scream. He kept up the arco improvisation, driven by an electric distortion pedal, and then constructed several thick chords that kept buzzing long after he put his violin down and picked up an acoustic guitar. Eventually, his resolute guitar strumming bust through the wall of violin loops and “Sisyphus” began. Bird’s whistling was cold, but his singing voice warmed the room up again; his lyrical manner was frank, puzzling, and at times hilarious. “History forgets the moderates. For those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn, you know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice,” he chuckled in the second verse.
The band played air-tight arrangements with plenty of finesse, and their sublime three-part vocal harmonies brought some of my favorite moments of the night. “Cracking Codes” featured Bird’s most somber whistling and most delicate string playing — it gave the impression of a sweet smile, but something darker lay beneath the surface. Before the band played “Manifest,” Bird treated us to an off-the-cuff meditation on fossil fuels, ecology and ghosts.
Bird, Hampton and Cunningham closed out the set with a crowd favorite, “Capsized” from 2016, which Bird capped off with a blistering improvisation on distorted electric violin.
Andrew Bird will be on tour in Europe and North America throughout the summer, playing dates with Madison Cunningham, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Tift Merritt. He will return to Philadelphia to play The Fillmore on September 16 with Chicano Batman. My Finest Work Yet came out in January on Loma Vista.
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