Live Review: Andrew Bird at The Shepherds Bush Empire, London (19/02/23)

7am Sunday morning, painstakingly lift myself out of bed and into my toe-capped boots. 4 hours of the same loading, unloading, stage-building, light rigging, and event crewing that left the rear portion of my body depleted yesterday. I knocked off, enjoying the warmth of the morning as I dragged myself home, through the bustling North Laines of Brighton, to get changed just in time to drag myself back to the station and fall asleep on the 16:32 to London. I’m out at Shepherd’s Bush by 7pm to see Andrew Bird’s long-delayed appearance. Although you may think this article is shaping up to be some embittered rant about the irony of setting up stages all day just to travel cross-country to stand in front of a different stage, built by different pirate crews, It’s not. 

It’s 9:30pm now, and I notice a slight lip on the tread plate floor as I steady myself. Stage right produces Andrew Bird: Tall, slender, wrapped in tweed. An academic presence, unified with the gentle figure of a violin. I’m equal parts embarrassed and proud to see that he has his violin custom-made with a pick-up and an extra string; its guitar-like range now allowing him the use of additional octave and overdrive effects pedals. The signature tone it made bestowed an artificiality and otherworldliness that gave ‘Atomized’ (the first track released from his latest Album Inside Problems) a stoicism and inquisitive atmosphere. When marrying this with his unique addition of whistling, he created two oscillators in play, as the song’s rich melodies built up in front of us on a pair of loop pedals. Imparting his music’s cosmic sense of awe, the lyrics’ societal scope and abstract themes topped things off like a city in a basilica: dizzyingly complex yet beautifully vast. 

Supported by Alan Hampton on bass and Ted Poor’s mind-bending syncopated drums, this 3-piece presented themselves as a conservative house jazz band, formed in the moments before the invention of the electric guitar. Looking at them you’d think they could only narrowly fill the space with their handful of typically acoustic instruments and their row of cabs (an insignificance only intensified by the 8-foot void of lonely space between their backs and the back wall). But, as suddenly as they emerged, the overwhelming embrace of “Sisyphus” wrestled the crowd into a whistling tribunal, a people’s screechy microphone. As the set continued, ‘Make a Picture’s’ line “love you anyhow” rang out over our heads as I watched a drunk man from Manchester and a woman in a Midsommer-esque sundress (typical of a baroque pop-crowd), spinning one another around and around in the front row. I was surprised again as the matriarch of a mother-daughter pair, who I expected to be quite timid, bellowing a perfect vibrato accompaniment to the hook of ‘Never Fall Apart Again’ over my shoulder. It was electric.

The days final train back to Brighton’s main station saw me clinging to lucidity, buffeted by waves of lost-sleep and labouring finally catching up on me. In the middle of my homeward passage I found, yet again, the pearl that Bird’s music always brings me. The syncopated drums bouncing against perfectly balanced layers of orchestral violin pump my blood for me and drag my voice from my throat. Be it in a bleak mood, a packed London theatre, or the sleepy 11:47 Gatwick Express to Brighton that I technically shouldn’t be on for another 13 minutes (my return was booked for the Monday, whoops), it’ll belt out of me, straight from the chest.  

Photo: Adam Berry