It’s been almost a decade since Andrew Bird has come to Edinburgh, previous trips to Scotland taking him west to Glasgow where a better choice of venues are available. But while Glasgow has musical variety and a great and bustling music scene to offer, Edinburgh has space and landscapes, places to easily escape, even when the streets are hectic with Festival-goers. And to me, this works in favour of Bird’s music. Though the material on Armchair Apocrypha seemed to at times go against the a world full of aeroplanes and technological (and scientific) advances in life, Noble Beast seemed more focused on nature itself, looking to understand why things have evolved to their current state. Even though songs were tinged with a sort of black and wry humour regarding a sort of impending doom we all face, it always found itself referring back to the ground we live on and from, the landscapes we live in and the way we transform our lifestyles to it.
Though Emma Pollock sports a more rugged and electric sound, her presence is comfortable even though this is her first time in this near new venue. Though her songs shine through the sometimes chunky riffs and tackling drums, her Scottish voice and charm help her through her half hour supporting slot. As her set goes on, her supporting group wander off stage, eventually leaving her on her own with her electric guitar. She strums though a new song which, despite being just her on stage, already sounds like something she has bigger intentions for and is confident with. She is after all, as the last song on her enjoyable solo debut Watch The Fireworks suggests, “The Optimist”.
One of the great strengths of Andrew Bird live is his ability to transform any of his work into something spectacular. He arrives on stage and begins with the deceptive sounding “The Water Jet Cilice”, looping almost ferocious strums of his violin and slightly haunting whistling which echo “First Song”. When it appeared as a more fleshed out version on his Soldier On EP, its sounded empty until the violin loops came in towards the end of the song but still, they were too buried to have a greatly lasting effect. Here, because we get to see it from the beginning, it sounds more laboured and intense and catches the audience by surprise as the dizzying violin takes shape.
Going it solo, the focus is purely on Bird centre stage with nothing more than a toy monkey and his revolving speaker to detract attention elsewhere. Yet, his stage presence is clever and he keeps the audience engaged and amused with short stories of songs origins. But his humour is best when it’s in the songs themselves. “Sweet Matter”, an infusion of “Dark Matter” and its original form “Sweetbreads”, has listeners charmed by the reworking of one of the centre points of Armchair Apocrypha. But when the chorus of “I could taste what you were thinking/ That’s the taste of neurons blinking” comes along, the crowd chuckle and you can see a smile in Bird’s face, still enjoying the reaction, or indeed the line itself, after years of performing it. But the highlight has to be his superbly dry and dead-pan delivery of “Why?” between his itching body movements as he pins down the timing of the chord patterns. The music Bird creates is so full of ideas and while its construction in a live show can envelope some, it could also bring others to a complex, finding there to be too much to try and grasp. But the humour he seeps in and around the songs keep the latter group involved, acting as the point of accessibility for some even.
Though the setlist tonight was focused on material from Noble Beast, from the appropriate Scottish lilt of “Effigy” to the jolting and lyrically magnificent “Anonanimal”, it felt varied. “A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left” charged along on an up-tempo pizzicato riff while a version of the blues classic “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” was a given a slight swing with jagged edge. “Scythian Empires” closed the initial set with it subtle and beautiful melodies while Bird had candy cane swirls floating around on a projection behind him, perhaps a reference to the beginning song’s lyrics. The audience were also treated to a premiere of a new untitled song. Though only a skeleton on guitar, his lyrics were fixed and heavy with nautical references from sea life to warships. He sings of “planting mines across the shore”, juxtaposing deathly war images with his lulling and light voice, leaving the listener only to wonder where he can take the song over time.
By the time he came to the end of his encore with “Weather Systems” a sort of dulled yellow morning light bathed the audience, with their eyes fixed on the stage. Bird wandered round in a little circle, with his eyes flickering, hearing the music come together in his head. I wonder if it sounds as incredible to him as it does to the hundreds stood stock still in the Picturehouse?