Andrew Bird’s last visit to the capital was something of a tightrope walk – the musical polymath’s March show at London’s Barbican being the first night of his tour in support of ‘Break It Yourself’. While that show was beautifully choreographed, it was just that: an elegant but very careful and wary live reconstruction of his latest record, back-to-back. Tonight at Camden’s Roundhouse, however, he’s shooting from the hip. Having effectively spent the last eight months constantly on the road, the dynamic between Bird and his band is freer, looser and uninhibited, allowing ample space for all those impromptu and improvisatory twists and turns, and unexpected nervous ticks that keep attentions firmly fixed on the stage.
Briefly referencing that last Barbican show, Bird makes an early promise of a set list that draws more heavily from his substantial back catalogue – an outing of live favourite ‘A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left’ that almost fizzes with energy acting as an early delivery of this pledge. All Bird’s calling cards are here: virtuosic whistling, seamless violin looping and an unencumbered voice that’s only augmented by his wild, instinctive gesticulating, and the old railway engine shed-turned-venue is beginning to swell with energy. As ever, Bird’s recomposing his melodies on the spot, and adding wistful violin lines where he pleases, and it’s this impulsive spirit that’s carrying the show tonight (and, one would imagine, keeping the audiences coming back time and time again).
Tonight’s appearance also falls shortly after the release of ‘Hands of Glory’, an eight-track companion album to ‘Break It Yourself' with a middle-America country music thread running through its veins. With that in mind, the band soon rearrange themselves around a single microphone in order to perform “old-timey” reinterpretations of Bird’s own songs, as well as covers of tracks by the likes of The Handsome Family and Townes Van Zandt. The six songs form something of a centrepiece this evening, but it’s an unexpected performance of ‘Sovay’ from 2005’s ‘Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs’ that endures – the song’s gentle lilt transplanting effortlessly into this intimate live setup.
Once over – once guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker has returned safely to the cover of his pedal board, once drummer Martin Dosh is able to make full use his arsenal of drums, keyboards and electronics again, and once bassist Alan Hampton has traded in his hefty orchestral double for an electric – the energy picks up again. Highlights arrive thick and fast: ‘Effigy’, ‘Plasticities’, ‘Tables and Chairs’ and ‘Fake Palindromes’ are all present and correct, and the four-piece tear through the lot of them with unprecedented vivacity. Despite their experienced proficiency, there’s something youthful about this band tonight.
Leaving the stage to a submerged, textural, and frankly gorgeous loop, you can’t help but feel more satisfied by this incarnation of Bird and his music. While the technical trickery is a sight to behold, it’s Bird’s background in jazz, his spirited improvisation and spontaneous rewriting of melodies that make him one of the most watchable and durable live performers around.
Words by Sam Cleeve
Photos by Rachel Lipsitz