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Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

Andrew Bird: Destroyer of Perfection

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It’s easy to play a song imperfectly. Bands do that all the time, for lack of skill, for irony, or for utter lack of caring. Andrew Bird wants very much for the music in his live shows to be imperfect. He says that his live shows are perilous, on the brink of collapse. But “brink of collapse” better describes all those other, imperfect musicians. Bird’s imperfection isn’t about the disarray of tearing something down, just as the skeleton of a building isn’t only visible when it’s being destroyed. Bird’s imperfection is about the ecstatic, rickety place things inhabit as they are constructed—just as dangerous, but less insulting, and far more rewarding.

There are a lot of pieces to assemble to play one of Bird’s songs—tape loops, layering, the regular use of glockenspiel and other rarely used, tough-to-spell instruments. He merges them into album tracks in clearly deliberate ways. It would be easy to hold up a recorded song as a template to follow. But the Andrew Bird who records albums is not the one who takes the stage at his shows. If anything, each is a response to the other.

“As records are being created more and more perfect, I think people are drawn to shows that are more seat-of-the-pants,” Bird says.

He frames his concerts as a war against apathy. Every time he tries to reproduce a highlight from another show—the perfect vocal inflection, the ideal riff—he is one step closer to complacency. Repetition, he reasons, is a comfortable way to remove all of the passion from the music.

“The worst thing that can happen is that you’re just putting your finger in the right place, that playing a song becomes physical memory, and I really don’t want to let that happen,” Bird says.

Like ghosts, he believes, songs are too wispy to nail down.

There is a surprising amount of effort that goes into ensuring his shows never get too polished. Bird goes to great lengths not to get overly acclimated to physical environments. He shows up hours before sound check to sit in the audience, and connect himself to a new venue.

“I feel like it has [gone wrong] those times I’ve come in the back door, ran a sound check, collapsed until show time, and haven’t really connected with the space,” he says. “It seems like a disconnect can happen when you play 200-plus shows a year.”

Bird likes to keep his band, and himself, as nervous as possible. In every show, Bird and band try something for the first time. There will be a new cover, a new arrangement or a new verse to a song.

“You remind yourself that your own work is not that sacred,” he says, “and that what’s sacred is the actual moment and trying to recreate every night the sense that you’re creating the song for the first time.”

Sometimes, it actually is a new song. “I’ve got maybe six or seven songs cooking that I’ll try at sound check with the band that they might have just learned a couple of hours before,” Bird says. Sometimes he’ll stop midway through a song, and ask the audience where the song should go next.

If the show seems unfinished, it is entirely intentional. It may be easy to play a song imperfectly, but it’s hard to be as dogmatic about imperfection as Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird performs two shows at the Pabst Theater this weekend, playing with a full band and opener Dosh on Friday, Oct. 16, and playing solo with opener St. Vincent on Saturday, Oct. 17.