On a clear, frigid evening last week, despite the rush of traffic outside on Michigan Avenue and the fifteen hundred people seated inside, their breath still visible in the chilled air, there was silence inside the Fourth Presbyterian Church. Then thunderous applause as Andrew Bird entered, and without preamble, took up his violin and began the first night of his annual “Gezelligheid.”
Borrowing the Dutch phrase which loosely translates as “cozy,” Bird has established not just a treasured Chicago tradition, but a distinct and striking reality all his own. Best known for his work as an avant-garde violinist, Bird has been a mainstay in Chicago’s music scene since the early 1990’s when he was bandleader to a small jazz ensemble known as the Bowl of Fire. In the years since, he has transcended his post as a beloved local musician, and become known internationally as an established contemporary artist.
A significant part of his foray into the art world has come by way of collaborations. Most recently with John Baldessari, who acted as creative director to Bird’s most recent album Are You Serious , and whose influence is recognizable in Bird’s use of light in live performance. Throughout Wednesday evening’s show, the church was intermittently saturated with all-consuming hues of blue, green, and red, while at other times the immense, gothic space dimmed to near darkness, only Bird backlit, resulting in his taking on an ethereal, saintly look which was reflected in the towering, intricate stained glass that acted as backdrop to the performance.
Of course, Bird’s longest standing collaborative relationship is with Chicago-based sculptor and luthier Ian Schneller of Specimen Products. Theirs is a relationship that has led, notably, to three major museum exhibitions (at the Guggenheim New York, MCA Chicago, and ICA Boston) in the past five years, and has left the two nearly synonymous, with Bird’s use of the signature double-headed doppler-producing Specimen Janus Horn on nearly every tour. Wednesday night was no exception. Two Janus horns, resting atop the carved woodwork behind the church’s pulpit were flanked on either side by four eight foot tall Liederhorns, the gold leaf of their interiors blending seamlessly with the iconography of the church, while the spectral lights cast down upon them brought the ornate masonry ornamentation of the church walls into stark relief.
Bird, fresh from the previous night’s engagement at Carnagie Hall, was affable, modest, and exceedingly casual on stage, though he had his fair share of challenges throughout the performance, as the severe cold had instruments failing to stay in tune and equipment malfunctioning. The result was—rather than a diminished experience—a performance that was delivered off the cuff, giving the audience a privileged look at how Bird works firsthand. The result was a powerful, raw, and sincere delivery of work which exceeded by bounds even Bird’s most painstakingly produced records.
Joining Bird on stage intermittently were Chicago mainstays and long time collaborators, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, who also served as the evening’s opening act. Their seemingly effortless harmonizing served the space well, and provided a haunting depth to a host of cover songs the trio performed, ranging from modified versions of works by the Handsome Family to those of Neil Young. These moments provided temperance to the more radically experimental instrumentations and a sense of balance to the setlist, which featured work that spanned Bird’s career, closing appropriately with his well-known love letter to Chicago, “Pulaski at Night.”
This inimitable confluence of sound, light, space, sculpture, and architecture not only makes a compelling argument for Bird’s self-styled world and its offer of a respite from the brutality of the Chicago winter and the preoccupations of day-to-day living, but makes a compelling argument for subtlety, for sincerity, and for the presence of the artist in contemporary art today.