Andrew Bird, Esperanza Spalding @ Ravinia Festival, 7/23/17


Andrew Bird is a popular violinist,
singer-songwriter, guitarist, glockenspielist, expert whistler, and, perhaps
more importantly to some, a son of Chicago and its prominent folk-indie music
scene. His critically acclaimed solo career has spanned over 20 years with 12
studio albums and several other live and compilation recordings. This is, of
course, in addition to all the writing and recording he’s done with other
bands, including Squirrel Nut Zippers and
Bowl of Fire.

Bird’s songwriting, which has historically
been rooted heavily in folk and country revival, boasts a wildly eclectic
mixture of influences which Bird, with his expert musicianship, is able to
blend cleverly and beautifully. His varied repertoire melds folk,
neo-classical, and pop melodies with blues, rock, soul, and even Latin and
cabaret rhythms. His music could be said to find much of its life on the airy,
harmonic flourishes which he builds deeply into many of his songs. The playing
of his signature instrument, the violin, is typically accompanied by his use of
a loop pedal which adds layers to his melodic music. It is not uncommon for him
to build his songs from layered loops of violin playing and plucking. These
combine with other instruments to create full-sounding music, which he compliments
with his brand of witty and intelligently unique lyricism.

Bird’s most recent release, titled “Are You
Serious,” keeps these traditions and, as he always seems to be doing, adds to
them, expanding, impressively, his already enormous range of styles.

 Since the album’s release in April 2016, Bird
has launched a major world tour in its promotion. Capping off appearances in
Australia in the spring of 2017, he began touring the United States this
summer, playing at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL on July 23, 2017.
This show would be the first in his run of dates featuring Grammy-nominated and
classically-trained jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, after which he would tour
with Belle & Sebastian, Spoon, and later, The Lumineers on future runs of his
Summer 2017 tour.

According to its official website, the Ravinia
Festival, an annual summer-long festival of outdoor, mostly classical
performances, is the oldest music festival in North America. It’s set in the
gently wooded 36-acre Ravinia Park: a gated park of grassy expansions oriented
largely around a medium-sized sloping pavilion, which itself is directed at a
main stage. The area is stocked with vendors and amenities and spotted with art
displays and in-ground speakers allowing the musical performances to be enjoyed
from nearly every point of the park. Furthermore, unlike other festival
grounds, it did not disallow outside food and beverages from entering, and so
was popular with large groups and families who could come in with coolers
packing full of large picnics.

 Gates for Bird’s July 23rd concert opened at 4
p.m., and between then and the 7 p.m. start time the audience slowly trickled
in from surrounding areas, the parking lot, and the Union Pacific North Metra
train line which made periodic stops conveniently next to the park. Later in
the evening, those with advanced pavilion tickets started being seated in the
pavilion, and the music began promptly at 7 p.m.

 The opening act was an orchestral band of
outlandishly and colorfully dressed musicians who performed eccentric music
with four cheerleaders in equally colorful and mismatched cheer uniforms. Their
performance had them running into the pavilion and grass audience, interacting
and playing and dancing with them. Topping off the superb oddness, before
ending their set one member of the band introduced the evening’s featured
performers “Andrew Bird” and “Esperanza Spalding” amongst a series of “meows.”

It was at approximately 7:45 p.m. that a slightly nervous Spalding came out to
perform with her band which she introduced as “The Royal Tees” or “The Royal
Tease” (the spelling was ambiguous). The collective included herself on bass,
two backup singers, a drummer, and a saxophonist, all wearing different colored
overalls. They performed stunning and wonderfully composed jazz songs expertly.
Particularly Spalding, whose acoustic and electric bass playing, as well as her
scatting and singing, were vibrant and impressive. Given that Bird, although a
versed musician in many genres, has not experimented with jazz as extensively
as with others, the pairing with Spalding succeeded in expanding the purview of
the night’s musical catalog. By the end of her performance at 8:20 p.m., the
chirping cicadas had seemed to reach the crescendo of their own show.

 At approximately 8:50 p.m., Bird emerged solo
from backstage wearing a suave white suit, almost juxtaposing the eccentric and
colorful outfits of the previous performers. His set began with him reciting
some layered whistling and violin plucking and playing compositions with the
assistance of his loop pedal. He stood afront a large red and white gramophone
horn, which, when a mechanism was activated, would rotate in a circle
corresponding to an emulated wah-wah effect produced in the music.  

Beginning with his next song, and for the rest
of the night, Bird’s band of equally formally dressed individuals (a guitarist,
a drummer, and a bassist) emerged to play with him: Bird switching between
violin and electric guitar, sometimes in the middle of songs themselves, while
singing, whistling, and occasionally playing his vibraphone.

 Bird’s set focused on songs from his latest
album but was not lacking in that oft-requested older material, including,
among many others, “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and
“Tenuousness” from his acclaimed albums “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious
Production of Eggs” and “Noble Beasts,” respectively. Newer songs were
sprinkled throughout but were mainly saved for the middle to end of his show.
These included “Roma Fada,” “Truth Lies Low,” “Valleys Of the Young,” and “Are
You Serious.”

 Also from the newer album Bird played
“Capsized”: a song that, as he explains in his supplemental album to “Are You
Serious” titled “Are We Not Burning? The Devolution of Capsized,” emerged as
result of several slightly different songs he had been playing live throughout
his career. What ultimately did make its way onto the album was a song with a
somewhat ominous Soul/Gospel feel and an almost “When the Levee Breaks”
hard-blues twang to it.

At no point was it more apparent of Bird’s heavy Americana influences than the
series of country- and folk-rooted songs he played in the middle of the show.
One such song was a cover of “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” by The Handsome Family, a
song which was included on Bird’s The Handsome family cover album “Things Are
Really Great Here, Sort Of….”  During
this time, his accompanying bassist and guitarist changed their instruments to
both acoustic guitars and played into Birds central microphone, a task which
gave the auditory and, probably even more so, visual effect of a country band
recording music into a single-can microphone as might have taken place in
early-radio (if the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” is any indication).

 Bird did not talk much between songs, but one
of the few remarks he did have early in the night was his nostalgically
commenting on how he, himself, used to come up to Ravinia Park as a youth. He
hadn’t been back since high school, however, so this experience was something
of a homecoming for him.

Finishing with performances of his songs “Pulaski at Night” and “Darkmatter” a
little after 10 p.m., Bird returned to stage for two encores. The first encore
was a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” accompanied by none other than
Spaulding herself on bass and scatting. The second was a performance of “Tables
and Chairs,” which Bird prefaced as being about the oncoming apocalypse and
life after it.

 Bird remains an ambitious and consistently
compelling artist, and his “Are You Serious” album and subsequent tour herald
this sentiment. Although it could be said that his new album seems a bit more
bare-bones indie-rock influenced than his previous releases, considering the
vast range he has demonstrated among his other projects and albums, it is well
within his personal range as an artist. He is obviously a brilliant showman and
amazing musician, and his continuing ability to combine styles and influences
so flawlessly is no less than a stunning exhibit of his genius.

-Reno Fera-Ducatt

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