KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Andrew Bird is known as a master of looping music. He is a one man orchestra of his own, playing the violin, guitar, glockenspiel, and other instruments. Now he is touring the United States on a very limited tour accompanied by world class symphonies. On Saturday, he stopped in Kansas City for one of those rare performances.
On Wednesday, he played his first symphony show in Indianapolis. The multi-instrumentalist played his second show with the Kansas City Symphony at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. He blends classical, indie, rock, gypsy, calypso, and folk altogether. Bird is a classically trained violinist and an expert whistler — which is fitting for someone with the last name Bird. The Los Angeles-based talent only has five scheduled shows for his tour in four cities at four venues.
During the concert, the musicians played some of Bird’s most well known hits, classical pieces, “Figure Eight” from the Schoolhouse Rock catalog, and some improvised tunes.
A gramophone sat behind the symphony adding a new spin to the way the audience heard the show. You may be asking, what is a gramophone and how does it work? The sound vibration waves are recorded into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc, called a record. To recreate the sound, the surface is similarly rotated while a playback stylus traces the groove and is therefore vibrated by it, which very faintly reproduces the recorded sound. For the show, this added a nicely defined reverb effect.
Andrew Bird was a member of the bands “Squirrel Nut Zippers” and “Bowl of Fire” before pursuing a solo career. He wrote and performed “The Whistling Caruso” for The Muppets movie and composed the score for the television series Baskets.
Growing up, Bird listened to Irish tunes and bluegrass. He has cited English and Scottish folk music as an early influence. His jazz influences include Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, and Fats Waller. His classical influences include Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Béla Bartók.
Saturday night, before Bird came out on stage, the Kansas City Symphony opened the concert with a couple of numbers from Ravel. While listening to Bird, it was easy to notice some of his influences, especially in folk. His music has a certain quality to it that sounds forest-like, and exudes with a kind of inevitable vividness. This is in part because Bird thrives on storytelling, both in speaking to the audience and allowing the music to speak for itself. So essentially, it’s easy to get swept into the imagination of Andrew Bird and start having images in your head as the music plays.
In the first act, the symphony played with Bird; for the second act, Bird played a mostly solo session with a few songs accompanied by a pianist. For fans of Bird, hearing him with the symphony was a completely new experience. It was a treat to hear his songs seamlessly reinterpreted in such a high level collaboration. The real strength of the concert came from the juxtaposition of hearing Bird play with the symphony — beautifully capturing his imagination — to watching him play solo… as an almost mad scientist, looping his instruments and his vocals to build a rich composition.
In the second act, there was something almost spiritual about the empty chairs where the symphony played and watching Bird as he worked in a square picking up instruments and hitting the looper pedals. The gramophone in the back also made the experience all the more ethereal. In being a solo act, there is more intimacy with the audience — it almost seemed the setup of this concert left room for philosophical discussion. As people left the auditorium, you could hear them talking about the dynamics of the two acts and whether they preferred Bird by himself or with the symphony.
Andrew Bird has played in Kansas City prior to this show. He commented during the second act how the city has grown, and he was impressed by it, calling the city “World Class, and I don’t know how you did it… but you did it. So good job on your town.”
One of the more memorable times he talked to the audience was right before he performed a song he has at every concert for the past 20 years or so. He said he had a roommate who wanted to be his best friend, but Bird would often infuriate him by doing nothing — and he said the best way to upset someone is to simply do nothing. Therefore he wrote a song to express his roommate’s frustration, and for Bird to deal with his passive way in approaching some social connections.
Bird said during the program he left music school 23 years ago, and has been out of the classical world, so he had some reservations about doing this symphony tour. He worked with Gabriel Kahane to create the symphonic score. They took six songs and made a suite out of them.
There were challenges in creating the arrangements, partly because Bird loves to play with music in every facet from modulating waves, playing out of time, and improvisation. He isn’t afraid to mess with the rules established in music and elevate it to a new level. Kahane did an excellent job in taking this mad scientist of a musician and giving a symphony a design they could follow to make this long wanted dream by fans a reality.
Bird has had eleven solo studio albums. The most recent is “Echolocations: River” released on October 6, 2017. The album features performances from in the Los Angeles River under the Hyperion Bridge. The album before this was “Are You Serious.” It features collaborations with Fiona Apple and Blake Mills.
His next stop is in Los Angeles on October 11th at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. He’ll make his last stop in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center October 26-27.
The L.A. Philharmonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary Sunday ahead of Bird’s show.
For more information, check out Andrew Bird’s website.