Andrew Bird at Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco (12/16)

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I hadn’t realized my bucket list included watching the curious shadows of Andrew Bird’s Specimen horn speakers dance off walls inscribed in Hebrew until that sight played out before me on Monday night at Congregation Sherith Israel. Tucked into a pew on the left side of the temple, the experience of Bird’s first West Coast Gezelligheid performance (Dutch translation: “extra extra cozy”) was a fervent reminder of his lasting talent as a performer.

The Gezelligheid shows take churches and synagogues as their venues, a reminder of the importance a location can play in cultivating a concert’s atmosphere. Seated, quiet, alert, and respectful, Bird’s audience was treated to two sets and an encore of whatever music struck him, playing covers, instrumental pieces, and a series of country-twanged standards with help from Tiff Merritt on guitar/vocals and Todd Sickafoose manning the upright bass.

andrew-bird-2013-DanielleHobart - 2Congregation Sherith Israel is stunningly gorgeous, coated in a carpet of vermillion red and highlighted by a central dome above the roof and intricate stain glass work behind the balconies. Bird’s choice of amplification—an army of Specimen horn speakers in various sizes—lent themselves to the nature of the evening’s theme, forcing the crowd to listen closely to the loops of violin and melodic whistles. I consider myself to be Jewishish, so it was amusing and apt that my first visit to a temple since a Birthright Trip to Israel I undertook last fall was not to see a rabbi of faith, but rather a minister of music. Bird is a one-man symphony, plucking and humming himself into a backing band that acts as a bed for his voice and violin solos. He has a knack for making chaos sleepy, soothing the staccato of his strings and the swells of static as he moves from song to song.

As wonderful as it is to watch Bird turn a stage and speakers into an orchestra over the course of a song, the relief of Sickafoose on bass and Merritt on guitar and backing vocals afforded him the freedom to truly focus in the concert’s second set, where the trio gathered around a single microphone campfire-style. The country twang of tracks like “Cathedral” (which Bird said Rennie Sparks of Handsome Family calls a “big little”) and “Dear Old Greenland” was exactly the kind of special stuff I’d hoped would come from a show dedicated to a season rather than an album release.

andrew-bird-2013-DanielleHobart - 1Similar to the vibe of Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas shows and Aimee Mann’s holiday variety concerts, the Gezelligheid format allowed Bird the chance to eschew singles and tracks from his latest work and instead focus on whatever he felt like. Digging through the depth of his back catalogue, the setlist was a pleasant array of familiar songs and new treasures.
“Over the years, songs shed verses and add new ones,” Bird explained before introducing the song “Darkbreads”, a hybrid of the tracks “Dark Matter” and “Sweetbreads”. “Sweetbreads aren’t the kind of thing you can really sing about for too long, so I just threw another song in.”

For those who’ve never seen Andrew Bird live, the experience of watching him layer tracks atop one another until a song springs to life with the release of a pedal is spellbinding. And just when the many levels of violin and xylophone seem to have completed the sound, Bird unleashes his secret weapon: his whistle. I kept thinking of Neil Young and his harmonica, how this one extra talent was the signature to his legacy. As a regular Bridge School concert attendee, I’ve had the good fortune to hear Young punctuate the coda of a ballad with a burst of harmonica in much the same way Bird unleashes a sweet, strong whistle at the heart of his songs. To hear that whistle within the hushed confines of a rapt congregation—a musical sermon for converted ears—is to be in the presence of the true holiday spirit: a shared experience on a winter’s night.

Photography by Danielle Hobart.

01. Ethio
02. Hole in the Ocean Floor
03. Why?
04. Skin Is, My
05. Lit From Underneath
06. Plasticities
07. Darkbreads
08. Three White Horses
09. Headsoak
10. Pulaski at Night
11. First Song
12. Dyin Bed
13. Waiting to Talk
14. Dear Old Greenland
15. Something Biblical
16. Cathedrals (Handsome Family cover)
17. Give It Away
18. Orpheo Looks Back
19. Danse Caribe
20. If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover)
21. Action/Adventure
22. Weather Systems


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