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Andrew Bird introduced his new material in April to an intimate crowd of lucky fans at the Green Mill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, performing all of the songs from 2019’s My Finest Work Yet. On Tuesday, Bird and three of the musicians who helped create the album performed for an equally fortunate but considerably larger hometown audience at the ornate Chicago Theatre.
Bird entered through a cartoon door prop, picked up his violin and began crafting an intricate mesh of looped parts as his black-clad band followed and joined. Bird was dressed to match, but offset with a white dinner jacket. Like the Green Mill show, the set was again anchored by Bird’s robust new album, peppered with tunes that would belong on any fans’ best-of-Bird mixtape. Opening cut “Sisyphus” was met with a roar of recognition. The song was a modernized tale of the Greek king cursed to eternally push a massive stone uphill. In the song, the exasperated monarch decides to release his burden and let it tumble onto the town below. Bird led the song on acoustic guitar, supported by Alan Hampton’s loping bass and brightened by Jake Sherman’s piano.
Hampton dug deep on double bass for the soulful Motown groove of “Bloodless.” Bird’s most overtly political song describes “an uncivil war” and people at the top who reap rewards from divisiveness. Drummer Ted Poor’s skillful jazz-informed touch provided understated but insistent propulsion. The chorus of “Olympians” took flight with rapturous harmony vocals by Hampton and guitarist Madison Cunningham.
The beautiful pop of “Fallorun” contrasted with Bird’s troubled lyric about “tone-deaf angry voices breathing in your ear.” Afterward, the singer took a break from the LP flow to flip the platter. “That’s the end of side A,” Bird said. “We’re going to play some other tunes, then we’ll continue with side B.” The side-trip featured “Truth Lies Low” and “Roma Fade,” a pair of cuts from 2016’s Are You Serious. Bird looped his ethereal whistling and let it run through “Truth Lies Low” like birdsong drifting through an open window.
The examination of My Finest Work Yet resumed with “Archipelago” and its theory that our enemies are what make us whole. The performance fell somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and the gentler side of Radiohead’s “Nice Dream.” The band returned to taut R&B for “Proxy War.”
“I know I haven’t said a whole lot tonight,” admitted Bird afterward. “I might continue to be tight-lipped.” He warmed up nonetheless, saying that shows in his old stomping grounds made him ruminative, remembering early gigs at cozy spots like the Elbo Room, Empty Bottle, and the Hideout. “I can’t help but think about doing all of that stuff while I’m doing all this other stuff,” he added. “I can’t play in Chicago without thinking of that scene in Walk Hard where [Dewey Cox’s] whole career flashes in front of him.”
The lurching march of “Don the Struggle” provided another drumming showpiece for Poor, in a dizzying duet with Bird’s violin. After “Bellevue Bridge Club,” Bird announced that it was the end of side B, but not the end of the show. The group unplugged and huddled around a single microphone for a trio of songs from 2012’s Break it Yourself, including “Give it Away” and “Lusitania.”
In this setting, Bird was clearly in his element and said so. “We just played the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville] a couple of nights ago,” he said. “Hallowed halls and all, but it didn’t sound as good as this.” Cunningham spun a twangy Western guitar solo for “Three White Horses,” and the set concluded with the Gospel-blues-informed “Capsized.”
The highlight of a generous encore was a sweet duet between Bird and Cunningham on John Hardy’s “Gentle on My Mind,” modeled after the 1968 version by Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry. The rhythm section hummed along behind, with brushed snare, upright bass and sparkling piano.
The show concluded with an ode to Chicago. “Here’s a song I wrote after leaving Chicago, after living here 36 years,” said Bird. “A twinge of guild made me write this song,” he added with a wink. The crowd joined the winsome chorus of “Pulaski at Night,” raising their voices to beckon Bird and other departed loved ones to “come back to Chicago.”
Cunningham opened the concert with a set of her own songs, including the beguiling “Something to Believe In” that had been featured during Bird’s April set at the Green Mill. The song revealed shades of Tin Pan Alley, tender Judy Garland-styled heart-on-sleeve sentiment, torch-song flourish, and Cunningham’s deft Spanish-styled guitar playing.
Hampton served double-duty as Cunningham’s bassist in addition to Bird’s, and Cunningham paused during her set to lead the crowd in singing happy birthday to him.
Cunningham revealed her journey through song, describing “LA” as her first impression after moving from Orange County to Los Angeles to join the music scene. Cunningham’s sound borrowed from singer-songwriter and folk-pop traditions plied by artists like Melanie and Simon & Garfunkel, and her assured guitar playing on songs like “Pin it Down” was informed by soul and Afropop. With luck, local audiences will see Cunningham travel to Chicago for lengthier headlining sets in the months following her duties on Bird’s tour.
Photos by Philamonjaro