Live Music + Gig Reviews

Andrew Bird @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

19 February 2023

The multi-instrumentalist showcases the bijou arrangements and transparent beauty of latest album Inside Problems

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird

Tonight’s show by US multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird was originally due to take place back in July of last year but was postponed at the last minute due to the soaring temperatures then being experienced in London. He returns, seven months later, to cooler climes and large numbers of fans who quickly fill the venue soon after doors open. It’s a timely reminder of the high regard in which he’s held and the esteemed reputation he’s quietly grown over the years. 

He takes to the stage in suit, shirt and tie which seems to be a sartorial reflection of the sense of consummate, professional efficiency that runs through the show. Tonight he’s joined by a drummer and guitarist, a suitably minimalist set up for a show where chamber folk selections from last year’s excellent Inside Problems album dominate the set.

He opens with the gossamer textures of Make A Picture from that album, with Lone Didion soon following. This sees him play his violin both plucked and bowed, a feature that will recur throughout the night. Atomized appears soon after, all downsized economy of sound and precise musical tailoring that defines much of Inside Problems. Bird has played shows with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam recently and these opening moments certainly contain similar levels of intimacy to Beam’s work.

Bird has proved himself over the years to be a writer of informed, literate songs that are quite often populated by characters from Greek mythology and figures from history. This is most notable on his 2019 album My Finest Work Yet and three songs from it feature early on. The Spanish Civil War-referencing Bloodless offers contemporary political commentary, showing he’s one of a select group of artists capable of getting audiences to sing along to lyrics that allude to distant historical events (in this instance the line “and it feels like 1936 in Catalonia” rings around the venue). Sisyphus meanwhile showcases the depth and intelligence found in his songs, not to mention his mastery of whistling. It’s one of the most memorable contemporary allusions to Greek mythology since Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown album.

The Night Before Your Birthday has a bounding self-confidence to it and also has unlikely traces of The Velvet Underground buried deep within (Bird’s vocals move closer to the likes of Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine at times like this). Eight, another track from Inside Problems, has a timeless feel and glides by smoothly. Later in the set, he introduces an element of variety by playing a short folk/bluegrass-influenced section that includes older songs like Give It Away from 2012’s Break It To Yourself and Oh No from 2008’s Noble Beast. He recalls how he played the latter the first time he played Shepherd’s Bush Empire back in 2007. There’s further improvisations and jazzy embellishments along the way.

Pulaski At Night is saved until towards the end, still one of his most loved songs and he finishes with a driving version of Capsized from 2016’s Are You Serious. His sound might register towards the quieter end of the spectrum, all bijou arrangements and transparent beauty, but the crowd’s reaction is anything but, proving that even on a cold February night in London he can summon his own musical version of summer heatwaves.

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Andrew Bird @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
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