By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Last Modified: Dec 16, 2010 08:42PM
Besides the tree lighting in Daley Plaza, ice skating on the Hyde Park Midway and wading through slush that rises to your ankles, Andrew Bird’s annual show at the First Presbyterian Church on Michigan Ave. in the Gold Coast is on its way to becoming part of this city’s annual holiday tradition.
Bird does not position the second annual series as a straightforward homecoming. Running three sold-out nights ending Friday, the opening night on Wednesday was designed more as a chance to eavesdrop on a musician dabbling in electronic gadgets, in a setting that emphasized mad genius.
“It sounds really good up here,” Bird said, and for good reason. The stage (or the altar, as it’s called Sunday morning) was festooned with speakers courtesy of a local audiophile manufacturer whose designs mimic the elegance of antique speaker horns but are sonically precise and rich. About 16 tabletop versions lined the stage while six man-sized ones stood guard behind. One pair provided the night’s action, spinning like a top in a way that may have created negligible sound improvement but certainly provided some cheap visual thrills.
Despite the emphasis on sound, Bird’s performance is steeped in theater. His one-man performances rely on a bit of digital sleight-of-hand: electronic looping of different instrumental parts recorded live and then layered, a process so seamless, by the final result it becomes difficult to figure out which part Bird is playing before our very eyes and which ones he’s not.
The staggering of sounds was illusive but also, at times, engrossing to watch. On “Jesus Gonna Make My Dyin’ Bed,” an old blues cover originally linked to Blind Willie Johnson, Bird interjected spasms of fiddle, xylophone and whistling to the song that kept it finding new directions.
Another song, “Why,” relied solely on those scattering ingredients, all of them thrown in spontaneously in chasing after an elusive beat while a single blues riff kept the music grounded.
The real time creating, cutting and pasting only became a limited tool when the songs lacked standout melodies and instead turned into interesting displays of sonic doctoring.
There was no doubt the competing star of the night was the church itself. Filled with just over 1,000 people on the floor and in balconies, the show felt like a service, with quietude on order in the pews and a figure in lights trying to express deliverance. “Desperation Breeds,” a new song, took his fiddle — fingerpicked notes plus slashing rhythm he made with his bow — and transformed their combined parts into synthesized squeals, which he accompanied by electric guitar. Despite the nod to prog rock heroes like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the song was a taut pop song that played by its own rules.