Wednesday night at Largo on the first night of violinist, singer and songwriter Andrew Bird’s three-night stint, he and his two-man band encircled a single microphone as though they were performing for a 1930s radio broadcast. Framed by the red velvet of Largo’s curtains and backdrop, Bird harmonized while imagining the end of the world, and a sold-out audience in the little theater sat quietly rapt.
“It’s gonna rain Champagne and the hills are gonna dance,” sang Bird, a skinny, urbanely handsome gentleman, as he fiddled out the minor-key moan of “When That Helicopter Comes.” Written in 2000 by the Handsome Family, the song predicts a “power in the blood” and trees that “shake and scream” as the end arrives -- followed by helicopters.
It’s a sharp and witty exercise in adapting an old gospel conceit -- the day of reckoning -- to the present, a skill that on a broad level Bird, 39, has mastered over his long and wonderfully prolific career. On Wednesday he showcased this breadth.
Last year Bird released a humble eight-song EP of simple, old-time-inspired music called “Hands of Glory,” and at Largo he, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, stand-up bassist Alan Hampton and, for much of the night, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, played most of its doom-infused acoustic blues. On “Three White Horses,” Bird sang of love, death and an the ominous appearance of a trio of horses in a row. On “Something Biblical,” he strummed on his violin like it was a ukulele and sang of a county-wide drought that left its people “dreaming of that 50-year flood/Of oceans of plasma and rivers of blood.”
Heavy-duty stuff, delivered in a confident, gymnastic tenor that resonated through Largo, one of the city’s best sounding rooms. An expert instrumentalist, Bird’s string runs were exquisite, conjuring both highbrow parlor music and rural barn stomps. And when Merritt, from Raleigh, N.C., who opened the show, stepped in to offer harmonies for "Give It Away," her voice locked with his to create a patiently phrased groove.
More evidence of Bird's range arrived when he introduced a song he said was the theme to a children’s show he’s working on. The project, he said, stars one Professor Socks, a possessor of magic footwear that takes him on travels through time and space. To reach his destination Professor Socks puts them on and then, with a quick run, glides across the smooth surface of a floor, which propels him and his sidekick, a fox, wherever they desire.
Bird's done the same with his work, figuratively speaking (he did wear shoes at Largo), gliding through many progressions. He first found an audience as a member of Squirrel Nut Zippers in the mid-1990s, but despite the retro flapper vibe that band projected, in the intervening years Bird has mastered -- and, it could be argued, invented -- a tech-savvy approach to solo performance that's remarkable to behold.
He showcased this talent in the first part of his set, when, standing alone before microphones with his violin, a mini-xylophone and a number of foot pedals, he fearlessly and with great skill funneled the violin's heavenly wail through 21st century loop-and-sample technology to create rich one-man arrangements. On "Pulaski at Night," about a street in his hometown of Chicago, he built harmonic layers to accompany plucked-string melodies, spreading tones atop tones until a vast sound engulfed the theater; blindfolded, you'd have imagined a string section fit for Mahler.
As part of his two-song encore, Bird and band offered a delicate version of a classic Townes Van Zandt song, "If I Needed You," interpreted not in the version created at the height of the '70s "outlaw country" movement but as a song old as dirt, with a Western swing vibe suggesting Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
"If I needed you, would you come to me?/Would you come to me and ease my pain?" sang Bird while the rest of the band harmonized along, wondering on a question as pressing today as it was way back when.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit