Appreciators of music fall into two basic camps: those who devour a CD, read the liner notes, and care about who is playing what—and those who just want to hear a catchy tune or load some background music onto their iPod. The majority of Andrew Bird's fans on Friday night at First Avenue fell into the latter camp, and, because I identify more with the former, I walked away from the show somewhat disappointed. Not in Bird’s performance, but in the First Ave. audience, especially their lack of appreciation (or basic respect) for the opening act, Dosh.
I understand the plight of the opening band. The audience isn't generally there to hear them, so unless they absolutely command attention, they're not going to get it. What puzzled me was that this audience was obviously familiar enough with the songs from Bird's new release, Armchair Apocrypha, to sing along with them during the main show. What few in the audience seemed care about, or even recognize, is that Martin Dosh, besides being an incredibly inventive musician in his own right, is also integral to Bird’s sound. In addition to playing drums for Bird, Dosh helps create the framework for Bird's songs by looping the many of the beats and melodies that Bird builds upon.
Dosh opened for Bird, playing Rhodes and drums and looping them, while Mike Lewis joined on saxophone, mini keyboard, and bass guitar. The crowd talked through the entire set. I heard a guy behind me say, "I don't get why people like this. It's just two guys." Just two guys? Yeah, like just Simon and Garfunkel. Just the White Stripes. Just the Eurythmics. Dosh and Lewis were playing complicated, creative music that they performed tightly and with confidence. It’s a mystery to me why an audience so enamored with Bird’s sound wasn't more responsive to Dosh. After all, he’s the guy who gives Bird’s music many of its layers and textures—which is the sort of thing you learn if you bother to read the liner notes. He deserved better.
After Dosh's set, when the screen lifted to reveal Andrew Bird onstage playing violin, the vibe changed noticeably. The audience screamed and applauded with a ferociousness they had denied Dosh. But Dosh gamely joined in on drums. Ylvisaker came in on bass. Bird continued on violin, then whistled and played it back on a loop while he tapped the glockenspiel. Finally, Bird began singing "Imitosis" with a sweet, soothing voice that has broken even a few mainstream hearts by now. The audience screamed some more, and the show took off from there.
As a musician, Bird not only stands out because he whistles and plays violin and glockenspiel in a nonstandard genre, pop music, but also for how he plays them. He not only plays the violin with his bow, for instance, but also strums and plucks the strings as he would a guitar's. Last night was exciting because a live audience got to see him construct a tune by first plucking his violin strings, then looping that sound; whistling over the first looped track, then looping that on top of it; then playing the violin with his bow while singing. Amazing.
Some of the pluckier, staccato sounds off Bird's new CD were fuller and more electrified when played live. Bird himself told me yesterday he doesn't intend to play songs live exactly as they were recorded; there's always room for improvisation. On "Fiery Crash," Bird opened the song with his guitar slung over his back while he played violin, then he switched to guitar. Bird made this seamless transition time and again mid-song, changing the melody of a song from guitar to violin while Ylvisaker simultaneously switched his rhythms from bass to guitar. On a studio recording, these instruments would likely be tracked at separate times. To see it done live is remarkable.
After "Masterfade," off The Mysterious Production of Eggs, the band had a false start to "Plasticities." They were unhappy with the way the live looping had begun, so the band cut the music and decided to take it from the top, noting they'd rather be happy with the layering from the start than play the whole thing through with an inferior loop. It was a good move. Watching this song being performed live (it's the same tune they performed on Letterman last month) offers even the most casual of listeners the opportunity to marvel at Bird’s ingenuity both as a musician and arranger.
During "Heretics," I saw a smile crease each of the three players' faces. Nothing amplifies the excitement of a live show more than seeing the performers recognize that they're creating something profound in real time, in front of an appreciative audience. Dosh—stationed behind the drums as equally close to the front of the stage as Bird and Ylvisaker—must have found it a little ironic, but with any luck, they’ll be screaming for him next time around.