A regular on our shores, and in these pages - most recently in this 2019 interview - multi-instrumentalist folk/art-pop artist, Andrew Bird, returns for a hit-and-run series of shows beginning on Friday (see dates at the end).
He’ll be accompanied by the marvellous Tift Merritt (who you can read about here and here) and by an approach to making and playing music that some might think eccentric, but many others will see as inventive and uniquely interesting.
Wind Back Wednesday takes up with him in 2010, on his third trip here and the first where the shows were stepped up to the kind of rooms the merely quirky don’t get invited to.
Was he worried? Not exactly: he had a plan.
LAST TIME ANDREW BIRD PLAYED in Sydney we were all sweating buckets in a tent pitched mid-city: he was severely jetlagged and we were mesmerised by the strangely turning but wonderfully pleasing pop songs, the nattily dressed and straight-faced demeanour and the whistling. Always the whistling.
This time he's upgraded to the Opera House’s concert hall, a venue often difficult for non-classical acts but always high on their list of venues to tick off as career markers. Now, it’s not like Bird is leaping from pub backroom to grand room – he has played upmarket venues before – but still, it’s not the same as playing a show in a tent is it?
"I'm not thinking, oh, Opera House, that's a landmark, I'm thinking okay, how can we make it work,” says Bird from his home in wintery Chicago. “We play rooms like that a lot and it's really challenging to turn down but also lift the room with energy when you play rooms like Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House and not have it that kind of awkward, voyeuristic thing of flailing around on stage and people looking at you politely.”
So what does he and his band do differently? Play in tuxedos? Whistle with a choir? Taking chances is the answer.
We have seen Bird play both solo and with a small group, with live sampling and free form sections, and we might think we've seen the “tricks”. But there's never been an entirely comfortable moment in Andrew Bird shows because chance is always a factor, either with technological or human frailties.
As Bird explains, he and his band have done their time in jazz groups where improvisation and the unexpected is expected "for our own sanity and satisfaction".
"I make sure I write songs that are not going to pin me down. Or I just completely rethink the song,” he says. “What's really going to translate is whether you are getting off on what you're playing and are challenging yourself rather than a scripted show - that's not why I am on the planet. I'd get very disappointed if something didn't go wrong."
He once told me that he often finds himself almost coming to, three or four songs into a show, on the other side of the stage where he began, not sure how he got there. And that’s just the way he wants it too.
"You want [a show] to be so not like the rest of life."
Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt play The Forum, Melbourne, March 9; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, March 10; Tivoli, Brisbane, March 11