I didn't particularly want to buy a ticket to the festival on Saturday just to see Andrew Bird, whom I've seen three times before, but when he announced a late night show after the festival on Friday, I jumped on that train. However, because I stayed to the end of the festival on Friday to see Radiohead, by the time I made it to Stubb's, the openers had long since finished and Andrew Bird was at least a half-hour into his set.
Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 30 September 2016
Opening Acts: Sinkane, Lucy Dacus
Event: Austin City Limits 2016 Late Night Show
Left Handed Kisses
Three White Horses
The Naming of Things
Valleys of the Young
Pulaski at Night
Give It Away [one mic]
My Sister's Tiny Hands [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
Unfortunately I can't speak to the openers, and I haven't been able to find Bird's complete setlist elsewhere, so I can only provide what I witnessed. I was immediately surprised that the band was neither Bird's longtime accompanists (drummer Martin Dosh, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, bassist Mike Lewis) nor the crew from the last tour (bassist Alan Hampton, guitarist Tift Merritt, drummer Kevin O'Donnell, pedal steel player Eric Heywood). This time it was Ted Poor on drums, Steve Elliott on guitar, and a Luke whose last name I didn't catch on bass. (Apparently Hampton played on earlier dates of the tour.) While the band wasn't exceptional or experimental, they were really good and probably just a bit better than the last bunch.
I can make a decent guess as to what Bird played before I arrived based on the webcast of his festival appearance the next day and some his other recent setlists. It was probably several songs from the new album, Are You Serious, as well as a few classics like "Effigy" and "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left". There may have been a surprise cover or two. But from what I did see, he played several of the best songs from the new album, a few couple of his best songs from recent releases ("Three White Horses", "Pulaski at Night"), and a couple of his best older songs ("The Naming of Things", "Plasticities", and even "Fake Palindromes"). It came off as a very well-curated set balancing his various strengths.
"Left Handed Kisses" is a great single from the new album, albeit with a few phrases that always seemed oddly unbalanced for a singer that loves to fill space with clever wordplay. Playing it live without Fiona Apple's excellent parts proved a challenge, and although I kind of wished Bird had managed to cajole one of his bandmates into singing her parts, he did a modest job of doing it all himself. "Puma", meanwhile, is an impressively catchy song about his wife's chemotherapy. "Valleys of the Young" is slightly ridiculous and maybe a little more directly personal than Bird is used to, but I can appreciate the depth with which he weighs the decision of having children.
"Three White Horses" was the highlight of Hands of Glory (2012), and the version they played on stage also incorporated elements of the more atmospheric "Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses". It started slow and violin-driven, but then Elliott played a slide guitar solo before they suddenly picked up the pace and carried into a great rendition of the rest of the song. Bird has never one to be shy of having multiple versions of his best songs, which is also demonstrated by "Pulaski at Night". Originally the standout track from the otherwise instrumental I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP (2013), he released another (slightly inferior) version as just "Pulaski" on the deluxe edition of Are You Serious. The version they played live was a bit closer to the latter version, but yet it equaled the strength of the original.
Bird claims to have rarely played "The Naming of Things", which appears to be true, although it did appear on the Fake Conversations live EP given out for free to ticket buyers on the 2012 tour, and he played it when I saw him on that tour. It's one of his best songs, but he has a tendency to change the phrasing of it when performing it live, much like Lou Reed would. Bird is a much more talented singer than Reed, but it's still annoying to have the opportunity for singing along rendered practically impossible. On one hand, I like it when musicians can rearrange and reconfigure their songs live, but on the other, it can be alienating, especially when it is done to an artist's most well-known song, in this case "Fake Palindromes".
For the encore, Bird again reprised his one mic gimmick, although with the addition of the full drum kit. "Give It Away" is great song from Break It Yourself (2012), and "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is a typical example of the all-Handsome Family covers album, Things Are Great Here, Sort Of… (2014). While the album goes perhaps a bit too far, Bird has always done a good job of interpreting Handsome Family songs, and this song is no exception when presented in its own light. Both were well suited to the format.
I thoroughly enjoyed the part of the set I saw, so I wish I'd seen the full thing. The performance at the festival the following day was fairly similar, albeit condensed. For the shorter festival set, Bird dropped the one-mic section and focused mostly on uptempo, catchy numbers. However, he still managed to play a couple songs with lower-key, subtler sections ("Three White Horses" and "Pulaski at Night"). In both shows, he seemed to play to his proven strengths in the indie rock vein with limited crossover into the country/folk side of things. However, I'm still left with the impression that Bird is searching out new directions. His latest album is decidedly a return to indie rock after some brief diversions, but the directness of the lyrics is certainly a change. The album took a while to grow on me, but the live performance secured my impression that the new material stands up almost as well as his best work. I might still be waiting for a dramatic turn of events, but Bird is delivering satisfying music in the meantime.
Late night show: A-
Festival webcast: A-
Are You Serious: B+