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Andrew Bird Gets Religion in Chicago


Hometown hero Andrew Bird has plucked his way through all sorts of Chicago venues through the years, from tiny clubs to Lollapalooza to the grand Civic Opera House to the 95th floor observation deck at the John Hancock Center. Because he’s such an unusual performer, no place ever seems exactly right or wrong: He can entice throngs to swarm the stage at Millennium Park with his Gretsch strapped on, or he can silence a barroom with the clearest whistle you’ve ever heard.

He couldn’t have asked for a better room to exercise the quieter, more rapture-inducing side of his personality than the Fourth Presbyterian Church, a gorgeous old building that’s smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and spitting distance from the landmark Water Tower. He also couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night to begin a four-night stand of “Gezelligheid” concerts-named after a Dutch word that means something like “socially cozy.” The idea was sold as intimate, unamplified, and largely instrumental-a treat for fans just as interested in Bird’s process as his pop-leaning moments.

He limped onto the gorgeous stage looking like a harried businessman in a rumpled suit and days of stubble, and plunked himself into the middle of his gear-violin to his right, xylophone in front, a guitar off to the side. He looked small amidst the custom-made eight-foot horn speakers he travels with, and which he used here in lieu of a P.A. to achieve the desired intimacy. He apologized for sitting, explaining that he’d banged his heel on a piece of equipment, but it added to the strange mixture of solemnity and joy he brought to church.

As promised, Bird stuck to instrumentals for a while, building huge washes of sound one piece at a time with a looping pedal and his limited array of instruments. It’s extraordinary to watch but even more extraordinary to close your eyes and hear what one guy can do: What begins as a simple pizzicato violin pluck or quick bowing becomes symphonic in short order. After a few pieces, he explained that he was aiming to present “the kind of music I make out at my barn… some familiar stuff, some unfinished.”

Both worked well and sounded incredible, for the most part. When Bird went off on instrumental works-in-progress, he sounded like the mad genius behind some alternate-universe Disney soundtrack. (Memo to this universe’s Disney-hire this guy.) When he dipped into more familiar wells, he did it sideways, toying with the vocal melodies in “Natural Disaster” (from this year’s fantastic Noble Beast) and “Scythian Empires.” Half the time, an eerie light cast a huge shadow on the grey stone wall next to Bird, adding a Tim Burton-esque atmosphere to more out-there instrumentals like “Carrion Suite.”

For his encore, Bird stripped all the way back, eschewing even his giant cone speakers and strumming his violin like a ukulele on a cover of Bob Dylan’s Christian-era deep cut “Oh, Sister” before exiting with his own mini-beauty, “Some of These Days.” It was an appropriate exit strategy for the night-humble and appreciative of the audience, the room, and the Gezelligheid itself. He couldn’t have asked for more.