Thursday, April 23, 2009

Concert Review: Andrew Bird/Heartless Bastards

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, 03/15/09

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It was an interesting study in musical contrasts at the Pageant Sunday night. Opening act Heartless Bastards specializes in something that can best be described as a thrillingly bastardized form of garage blues-rock. The band's music doesn't so much nudge listeners awake as grab them by the throats and thump them upside their heads. No points for subtlety here; lead vocalist Erika Wennerstrom substitutes soaring emotion and a booming voice in place of pitch-perfect delivery. The band's latest album The Mountain had all these qualities in spades, and showed some advances as the band occasionally opted for some folksiness with banjos and fiddles. All those seemingly endless comparisons to fellow Ohioans The Black Keys aside, Heartless Bastards is a damn good band in their own right, though Wennerstrom is the band's only constant member.

Headliner Andrew Bird's approach is markedly different. While his live show tends to be more free-form and unhinged than his albums, with an urgency to the songs that is largely absent from their studio counterparts, releases like The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Noble Beast are lyrically dense and musically layered, straddling that fine line between lyrical ambiguity and inaccessibility. His songs reveal themselves gradually over time; if Heartless Bastards' style is to jar listeners to attention via Wennerstrom's vocals and the band's onslaught, Bird often relies on understated melodies, loops, and all that damn whistling to make his point. Regarding what that point is - who the hell knows, with Bird himself admitting that he's not even sure what the songs mean.

Though the main similarities these two artists have in common are mostly limited to their record label - they're both currently part of the Fat Possum stable - the pairing made for a pretty solid, if disparate, few hours of music. Heartless Bastards took the stage at 8 pm sharp - it's a work night, folks - to polite but somewhat subdued applause from the capacity crowd. The band's plan of attack was direct and loud, with the Pageant's notoriously spotty sound quality (think of a thumping bass heard from the comfort of a toilet bowl) thankfully absent. With a heavy dose of songs from the new album, Heartless Bastards played tight and polished - perhaps a little too polished - with Wennerstrom pausing only briefly between songs to switch guitars or introduce the next number. The band nicely translated their love of volume to this live setting, with "Blue Day" grooving like a dusty blues track from a bygone era and "Sway" taking on murky, sinister undertones. Most songs were stretched out with lengthy instrumental jams that showed the band's garage rock roots, even if they've moved far beyond the claustrophobic quarters of the tiny Duck Room, where they played on their last stop in St. Louis. "The Mountain" benefited from a similar thrashing, with Wennerstrom's vocals complementing the band's racket and sounding like a cross between Lucinda Williams and Jim James (that's a compliment). An acoustic take of "So Quiet" offered a brief respite from the band's general clamor, before their set concluded with the ubiquitous big finish - dueling guitars full of fury and fire, manic drumming, and distorted faces of anguish from the band members. For the most part the usually chatty St. Louis crowd - nothing says sophistication like talking through an entire fucking concert, especially in the grips of a recession - was attentive, with the usual background hum of conversations little more than a hushed din.

If the band could be faulted for anything, it's that they were at times too precise and too exact to make any real connection with the audience. Part of this disconnect can be attributed to the Pageant's complete lack of aesthetics or atmosphere; despite being a mid-sized club, with its gigantic advertisers for the venue's corporate sponsors and non-existent décor, it's almost as cold and impersonal as any massive arena. Still, despite some dedicated head banging from a few of the pit's more manic members and St. Louis icon Beatle Bob shadowboxing with an invisible adversary, it was hard not to feel that the band's sound would be better suited to a sweaty, dingy, seedy basement concert room instead. While not revelatory, the band's set was strong and able to hold the attention of those ADD-addled concertgoers. Wennerstrom's voice in particular is an instrument in itself, brash without being bombastic and soulful without being overwrought.

After a relatively brief pause while the stage was stripped of all things Heartless Bastard, the pit warriors jockeyed for prime real estate (elbows up!), and one concertgoer regaled me with a story about how the often-truculent Jerry Lee Lewis several years ago called his friend "the spit in my mouth" before the verbal abuse really started, Andrew Bird opened the show solo, armed only with a violin, guitar, xylophone, and tons of loops. An opening instrumental that segued into "The Water Jet Cilice" - with the musician continuing his odd tradition of taking off his shoes - set the template for much of what followed, with Bird building the songs piece by piece by looping his instruments and alternating between violin and guitar. Backing band Martin Dosh, Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker then joined for the main set, with songs like "Masterswarm," "Natural Disaster," "Effigy, "and "Souverian" performed more drawn out and atmospheric than they are on Noble Beast. Those who have seen Bird perform before are well aware of how he reworks his songs' textures and especially their vocal arrangements; it's this type of unique phrasing and near-improvisation that makes Bird such an engaging performer. Other songs were far less restrained, with a jagged version of "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" accompanied by intense stage lights that made more than a few people - you guessed it - snap their heads to the left. "Fake Palindromes" was similarly twitchy and aggressive, a fitting closer to the main set before a too-short two-song encore.

While on paper Bird's songs lean toward the oblique, the distance that threatens to separate the performer from the audience is bridged by Bird's stage presence; it's simply too hard to look away. Part of Bird's sway over an audience stems from how these songs are literally built block by block on stage, along with a reserved and self-deprecating stage demeanor. His mannerisms are crafted without seeming overly choreographed or theatrical. Certainly part of this is the combined novelty of all those loops and all that whistling, but Bird often deviates from a song's structure, suggesting that his albums are merely blueprints that are more fully fleshed out in performance.

Of course some tightasses will mention that the show wasn't flawless; "Lull" had two false starts as Bird and Dosh couldn't get their loops to mesh, "Why?" took a while to get grounded and "Anonanimal" was a sludge of noise, but those are minor quibbles. And likely there are some fans clamoring for those pastoral days of 2003 when Bird played solo to a couple dozen people in the Duck Room and their primary reference point was that one of Bird's songs was actually a Galway Kinnell poem. As both a musician and performer Andrew Bird has far outgrown those boundaries. There are few musicians who have Bird's ability for lyrical and instrumental arrangements, and even fewer who can seamlessly reconstruct them in a live setting.


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