On first impression, it’s difficult to imagine how a man who has described himself as a violinist, xylophonist, vocalist, guitarist and “professional whistler” could perform an effective set with nothing but the assistance of one drummer. Despite neo-Americana artist Andrew Bird’s fairly traditional sound, the multilayered instrumentation of his work would have made Wednesday’s solo performance at The Ark a physical impossibility a number of years ago. The gradual inclusion of sampling pedals, once purely the domain of techno and hip-hop performers, into a broader range of genres in recent years has made it feasible for artists like Bird to effectively simulate their recordings without compromising the layered elements of their work.
Utilizing this tool to its utmost, Bird wandered onstage in the dreamlike haze listeners have come to expect from the writer of such peculiarly quirky songs as “Measuring Cups” and “Lull,” and gave a characteristically amusing performance for the locals and students who packed The Ark.
In reference to his recorded material, critics often make comparisons between Bird’s voice and that of fellow college radio artist Rufus Wainwright. But the similarities really end at the fact that both maintain a nearly operatic quality in their live performances. Where the latter tends to closely emulate the intonation and timing of his own recordings, Bird makes a point of varying his vocal cadences, often creating a challenging, slightly disorienting effect for the audience.
This is not to say Bird was inconsistent. For the most part he clung fairly closely to a framework: awkward but charming banter, a violin arpeggio just long enough to be looped, and then with the help of drummer Martin Dosh, a number of multi-instrumental layers thrown into the mix. This led to a strikingly accurate recreation of Bird’s studio instrumentation, if not his recorded sound as a whole. Dosh was an interesting addition to the show: While his contribution to Bird’s set was minimal, a lively one-man techno performance in the tradition of Aphex Twin woke up the crowd after a soggy, yet listenable, Robbie Robertson-meets-Wayne Coyne impression from openers, Head of Femur.
For all the sonic diversity attributed to Bird throughout his career, Wednesday night’s show was surprisingly homogenous. Much to the delight of the intimate but sizeable crowd, Bird drew primarily from his most recent release, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, dispensing favorites “Sovay,” “My Skin, Is” and the eccentric “Fake Palindromes,” shying away from his earlier work with the campy swing-era throwback group, Squirrel Nut Zippers.
While the initial magic of Bird’s music tended to dissipate once his formula was revealed (a layer of violin plucking, a bit of whistling), the show was tight enough to keep the lack of variety from becoming tiresome. His performance showcased a unique and innovative interpretation of Bird’s most recent recordings.