Concert Review

Concert Review
Behind the nest: Bird with Stephen Agustin and the Fourth Wall.
Image: Niko Rivas

Musician Andrew Bird impresses with intricate looping techniques

Concert Review / There’s something really wonderful about the acoustics of the Hawaii Theatre. The sound always seems huge and lively, but you never leave the venue with that annoying ring in your ears from having been exposed to high sound levels. From the click of a guitar pedal to the cough of a far-off patron, every sound was dressed in the wonderful reverberation of the theatre’s concert hall when Andrew Bird returned to the Islands for his second performance on Jan. 12.

Even the applause sounded musical; when Bird sauntered on stage, wearing all-black attire with two weeks’ worth of North Shore vacation stubble, he was greeted with thunderous approval. During a sneak peek of the singer during sound check, smiles radiated from the sound engineers’ faces. When told of Hawaii Theatre’s more frequent use as a concert venue since Pipeline Café’s demise, Andrew Bird’s tour manager heartily exclaimed, “Good!”

The violin, being one of the more expressive instruments, has a sonic proximity to the human voice–an aspect of the instrument Bird isn’t ashamed to take advantage of. He opened with the sad and beautiful violin instrumental, “Dissent,” off of his album Useless Creatures. The song consisted of a looped and descending spiral staircase of chords upon which Bird imposed lush legato melodies and harmonies with a slight vibrato.

For those unfamiliar with Bird’s looping tactics, it’s a technique that involves recording a line of music to a device, which then repeats the recorded verse over and over. This allows him to record several measures of music while layering additional parts on top of it, creating a multi-textured body of sound. Although Bird often plays with a band (which includes another master of the loop technique, Martin Dosh), it was a treat to discover how much sheer mass of sound Bird can produce on his own–truly a one-man-orchestra. On some of his more complicated and multi-instrument songs like “Plasticities” and “Skin Is, My,” the audience fastened their eyes on a sophisticated dance of guitar-pedal-tapping, instrument-swapping, whistling, singing and the unforeseen element of beat-boxing. If your eyes were quick enough, you could see Bird slyly slip off his shoes to turn a knob on one of his pedals with his toes.

Whether riffing on a melody he claimed was stuck in his head all week by way of a fuzzed-out fury of improvised notes which left a mist of violin rosin rising like a cloud of smoke or crooning a simple folk ballad like “Effigy,” Bird held captive the audience’s attention for a full two hours. Just knowing that one little mistake could cause the collapse of a song heightened the viewer’s suspense. When Bird accidentally erased a loop, he meekly said, “Oops!” and proceeded to start from scratch with an admirable amount of professionalism. Bird also offered some friendly on-stage banter, which turned out to be insightful glimpses into his lyrics.

Bird’s innovative blending of classical and modern musical techniques is what makes his performances so compelling. His tone is impeccable, often using a warm vibrato that’s reminiscent of crooners Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. But Bird also has a knack for creating abrasive and even disorienting sounds. For instance, his drastic altering of loop speeds mid-song left listeners feeling like the floor was caving in; or when he tapped his bow on his violin strings (akin to how a drummer produces a roll) to create an off-time percussive melody in the instrumental song, “Carrion Suite.”

Off stage, the man maintains a soft-spoken and humble disposition. Before back-stage attendees had time to deliver an onslaught of praise, Bird politely said, “Be right back, let me put on some shoes.” After emerging from his dressing room, Bird greeted everyone amicably and kindly accepted compliments, some of which came from local favorite Jack Johnson.

The four-piece local opening rock act Stephen Agustin and the Fourth Wall certainly added to the night’s excitement. The quartet plowed through their thirty-minute set with four diverse songs from their debut release, Motion and Rest, along with two new ones, “Cosmos in the Water” and “Let Me Rest.” Drenched with melodic, distorted guitars and Stephen Agustin and Kasey Shun’s arresting harmonies, the Fourth Wall put on a memorable show. “It was a great experience. I’m really happy we got to hang out with someone that we really admire,” Agustin said backstage.

After the final note lingered in the air, the crowd slowly left the theatre, disappearing into different pockets of Chinatown. Bird then packed his belongings–including his dashing sock-monkey roadie, who will accompany him on his upcoming tour for his latest record, Break It Yourself. Still, it didn’t feel like the show was over. If you stepped outside into the fluorescent streetlights and whistled the western melody of “A Nervous Tic Motion,” you could faintly hear a stranger in the distance, whistling the same melody right back.