Billed as Andrew Bird‘s Gezelligheid and staged as part of a three-night run at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, no one was expecting a normal show from the experimental multi-instrumentalist Monday night. And Bird seemed determined not to give them one.
“I wasn’t going to play that song, but then I thought you probably don’t know any of these,” Bird admitted after playing “Plasticities” near the end of his 85-minute set.
Indeed, much of the music Bird played was either new, a cover or an obscurity. The Gezelligheid, a Dutch word loosely translating to coziness, has become a holiday tradition for Bird in his hometown of Chicago. Monday marked its first staging outside of the Midwest.
Normally backed by a three-piece band, the virtuoso violin player, acclaimed singer and champion whistler performed solo Monday, aided only by the loops he organically builds on stage. Most songs began with Bird creating a violin base, before adding humming, whistles, xylophone or guitar to further flesh it out. Some songs swilled to a cacophony; others went through several looped changes.
The Gezelligheid shows are as acoustic as they come — 21 Specimen Products Horn Speakers (curvy, phonograph-like horns) provided the only amplification, sound waves bouncing off the building’s natural acoustics.
“It allows me to give myself a longer leash to play my instrument and not worry about packing it into a cute little pop song,” Bird said early, explaining the format.
As promised, Bird played few of said “cute little pop songs” — “Plasticities” and “Scythian Empire” being the most instantly recognizable. Early on, he dusted off Bowl of Fire song “Why?,” a vaudevillian romp to lighten things up, before trying out a new song written in the wake of this spring’s BP oil spill.
“I don’t know if you ever wake up in the middle of the night and hear all of the world’s creatures, including humans, screaming, but I do,” he said as an introduction.
Later, he played a song written by his guitar player about Black Friday. “Bring me your trampling masses,” Bird sang, admitting after that he didn’t initially realize the song was about a trampling at a Minneapolis Target last year.
“Pretty dark, nice holiday song for you,” he deadpanned. “That’s what this is all about: a nice cozy spirit.”
Given the laid-back atmosphere, much of the performance felt like a rehearsal for the rest of the week: Bird repeatedly flubbed lyrics, had to restart loops and aborted songs without batting an eye.
With the full band, Bird’s shows are a ferocious exercise in improvisational pop music — a fine-tuned jam band, if you will — so Bird’s subdued and loose solo playing had mixed results. But being in a historic synagogue, the audience was on its best behavior. Cell phone use was limited and no one said a word. In fact, for a show about Bird letting loose, the crowd was almost too restrained, with more than a few people appearing to doze off momentarily, though they may have just been listening with their eyes closed.
“Thanks for being cool with all the new songs, I’ve got to play them when they’re fresh,” he said before his final encore, a loop-free take on “Noble Beast’s” “Souverian.”
Ultimately, these shows provide the rare opportunity to catch Bird at his most adventurous — a glimpse into the mind of a mad musical scientist.
» Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Tues. & Wed., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)
Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images