bird

On Sunday I caught Andrew Bird’s performance at the Sydney Opera House. If you’ve not heard of him, Bird is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, and whistler from Chicago. (Yes, whistler; more on that in a bit.) His eclectic, orchestral folk/pop and improvisatory performances have inspired the most passionate acclaim. My friend Mike, one of the few whose taste I trust almost completely, was blown away by his show at Radio City and wouldn’t stop talking about his music. It was Mike (back in New York) who made me aware of the gig at the Opera House and told me I should go.

I’d read about Bird and heard a lot from Mike and others, but somehow managed to miss hearing his music. Despite this I succeeded in convincing my wife and two other friends, who had also never heard him, to join me. I’d already missed Animal Collective, Neko Case, and a New Year’s Eve set by French house producer Pépé Bradock. Being new in town, I’ve been keen to check out whatever scene is out there, especially as it’s summer, the peak of the party and festival season. I was not going to miss this show too. The others were happy to have their arms twisted — maybe because heading to the Opera House on a summer’s night, it’s hard to go wrong. And it felt like part of an ongoing celebration of our migration to Oz.

The evening began with drinks at the Opera Bar, which is simply a large enclosed area right on Circular Quay at the foot of the Opera House steps. A crowd reveled in the overcast, cool, but very pleasant evening air, and two guys played Stevie Wonder covers on a PA. As I settled into a schooner of ale, I took a look around.

It doesn’t get much better than standing in that spot, beer in hand, looking out on the Harbour and the magnificent bridge, which still had the huge yin-yang light display from the New Year’s fireworks show a few days before, insistently glowing in the mist. Then you turn around and there’s the famous building right in front of you, taking up all your vision. The wide sandstone steps seem to cascade upward to the massive windows in the front hall. You don’t often see it from this perspective in photographs, and it’s familiar but eerie, like seeing the face of someone you love at an odd angle.

The overcast day did not spoil the impression either. Of course in sunny weather the vision of the sail-like roofs, arcing and shimmering against the absurdly blue Australian sky, is merely perfect. But in this diffuse cloudy light, the curving roof tiles were the rich color of cream against the pale grey sky, seeming to glow from within, to be more immediate.

I’m not tired of looking at the Opera House yet. To be honest, I don’t think anyone is. I don’t intend to go on about Jørn Utzon’s genius right now, but he sure as hell designed a building you just want to look at.

Drinks finished, it was on inside. I’d not been to a show here before, and it was pretty grand to climb those steps and file up the very wide carpeted stairs inside to our seats. On the way up I noticed the un-tiled interior of the roof “shells.” The slate-colored concrete at first seems dreary; but as you look, its intricately fluted and bevelled surface becomes really fascinating. This raw, unfinished look is mainstream now but must have been pretty astonishing in 1973.

As we climbed, the Harbour opened up in the huge windows along the staircase; the Bridge seemed to loom closer; the yin-yang was pulsating and lighting the grey dusk on fire. Quite a way to get your seats at a gig.

The interior of the Concert Hall is subtle, but grand. It impressed me more and more as I sat and gazed at the quietly severe space-age vaults. It’s like a postmodern cathedral, really quite a space. As they quickly filled it up in an orderly Aussie way (the show had sold out completely), I noted that many in the crowd, a couple of thousand strong, were hipsters dressed down, or dressed up in fun/ironic ways. Nice to see not all Sydneysiders are so buttoned down. Our eyes were drawn to the large device on stage shaped like two phonograph horns fused together: the famous spinny horn.

Hip or no, the crowd was immediately captivated by Bird as he limped winsomely out on crutches, his body language affable and friendly even from our distant seats. The hall was suddenly filled with the shrill, ethereal sound of audience members whistling. Seemed like just an extra-enthusiastic Aussie cheer, but it made more sense very soon.

He opened solo with a violin, gorgeously manipulated by digital delay pedals to absolutely fill the big chamber with unusual sound and melody. Sometimes playing it like a guitar, sometimes drawing a bow, Bird folded layer upon layer of chiming, buzzing, ringing noise, creating something huge out of delicate pieces. This is his general approach, and with the restrained yet subtly intense light show illuminating the detail up in the vast darkness, and the spinny-horn spinning, it was easy to feel joy in experiencing this postmodern, post-rock orchestral mode in this particular place.

Bird felt the same way and said so. “It’s not every day you get to play in an icon of the planet,” he gushed in his low-key way. Being new here and still getting used to the differences in culture, it was nice for me to see thousands of Australians paying rapt attention to an American, especially one who talks in that slow, soft-spoken, rambling way that drives some Brits and Aussies nuts.

As his set progressed, Bird added elements to the tapestry, starting with his voice, which has a lot of power lurking behind its twee-ness and at its best recalls Jeff Buckley. (There I said it.) Then out came a three-piece band to interpret if not approximate the very lush recordings. Buckley, Pet Sounds, Radiohead, and Sufjan Stevens are some of the immediate comparisons trailing in my head. You can throw Belle & Sebastian and Arcade Fire in too for what it’s worth. But these are my own surface impressions; Bird manifests deep strata of influences in blues, country, jazz, Latin, and Middle Eastern music. The band was strong, and went right along with his complex but playful vibe.

Then there is the whistling. It’s hard to explain its effect in person. It’s poignant: comforting and strange at once, amazingly accomplished and melodic. From where we were sitting, it was hard to believe it was being done live — it pierced right through the thickly-arranged sound and seemed to occupy all the air in the room. (A sensation especially strong for me as he whistles just the way I do, on an intake of breath, with a deep sound centered in the throat.) Whistling connects Bird to his folk roots — what more natural instrument for a person to play? It’s also a bit silly; some might think just a little whistling goes a long way. But it’s hard to deny. After the show, walking along the quay, the yin-yang absolutely exploding in the full darkness, I fought very hard the urge to whistle. With other showgoers all around, it would’ve been too corny. We might have all been whistling and that would’ve been too much.

Bird played a long time and could do no wrong for the crowd or me, whether encoring with a bluegrass tune (plucking his fiddle, he and two of his backup guys singing into one mike just like in the old days) or rambling on about how his wonderfully catchy tunes are about sociopaths, mad cow disease, Chicago housing projects, or mean children. The cover of the Sesame Street tune “Capital I” was sublime. My wife and friends were pretty delighted too. It would be hard to care about music at all and not be won over by that much talent and verve.

Not long after I was having breakfast on a nice suburban morning and thinking of the show, and couldn’t help but whistle a little bit of “Oh No,” the first track on his terrific latest album, Noble Beast. (If you know the song, you know just why I would have it stuck in my head.) Then I heard some birds whistling in the trees outside the window. Loud Aussie birds, loud whistling, full of exhuberant life, summer in Sydney. Birds of all kinds, piping, squawking, laughing obnoxiously, are the soundtrack, the constant music of life here, a wonderful presence in my first few weeks. And I thought, of course! Birds. Andrew Bird. Of course!

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3 comments so far

  1. […] Another review of the concert can be found here. […]

  2. happy day « outernational on

    […] Posted January 9, 2010 Filed under: Uncategorized | Yesterday I finished my previous post, about seeing Andrew Bird at the Sydney Opera House, then looked on youtube for a good-quality […]

  3. Too Much « Feral Kid on

    […] a year ago I saw Andrew Bird play in the same room (the main Concert Hall). It was a fantastic show, an early peak experience in the euphoria of migrating to Oz. You might say Bird and Sufjan are […]


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