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Anything but Pop

Andrew Bird/ Fiddler on the Loose


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Anything but Pop

Andrew Bird sprints across the lobby of his Edgewater apartment building so he won't hear the music that's piped in. It's not that he finds it particularly repellent. It's just that the 24-year-old violinist, singer, and leader of the band Bowl of Fire is highly susceptible to the influence of sound, and he doesn't want to absorb just anything. A few years ago he was listening to the static on his broken car radio to stay awake while driving. "When I got out of the car and was walking away I started making this noise, and I realized I was imitating the static," he says. "The whole experience blew me away, so I've consciously made an effort to block out those influences I don't want to use."

Those unwanted influences include just about every note of music recorded in the last 50 years: for now, at least, Bird has dedicated his brain to the music of the early 20th century. And as heard on Bowl of Fire's new Thrills, the first album in a five-record deal inked early this year with Rykodisc, Bird isn't merely revisiting the stuff; he's reinventing it. Country blues, swing, tango, Tin Pan Alley, bebop, Swedish wedding music, Irish fiddling, and other sources are rearranged in a far-reaching but thoroughly organic pastiche--Bird's mastery of and affection for the material prevent the result from sounding too clever or too schizophrenic.

Bird grew up in Evanston and Lake Bluff, and at four began studying violin by the Suzuki method, which advocates immersing children in music so that it becomes second nature; it stresses relentless practice and playing by ear. "When you get to high school people either quit or really get into it," says Bird. "I really got into it. I got this whole romantic notion of becoming a violinist. You reach a moment when you want to have some way of distinguishing yourself, so that became part of my identity." Throughout high school he was obsessed with classical music. "By the time I got into college," he says, "I was spending ridiculous amounts of time in the practice room."

But by the end of his freshman year at Northwestern University his enthusiasm had waned. The Suzuki method encourages an intuitive grasp of music, while the more traditional program at Northwestern was heavy on theory. Bird felt stifled by the rigidity and began to search for other outlets. He gave up on becoming a concert violinist, but was nevertheless determined to earn a music degree. In his spare time he would explore anything that wasn't classical or pop: swing, blues, ethnic music. "I would move from one style to another, just focus on it for a few weeks, figure out its ornaments--exploring the difference between Scandinavian versus Breton versus Irish versus Gypsy violin."

By the time he graduated, in 1995, Bird was doing musical theater, playing Irish music at local pubs, taking session work with singer-songwriters, gigging with the local rock band Charlie Nobody, and even fiddling at Renaissance fairs in Michigan. It was with a Renaissance-fair band that he traveled to a music festival in North Carolina and had a fortuitous encounter with quirky neoswingers the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He sat in with them when they came to Chicago, performed on their chart-busting second album, Hot, and accompanied them on tour to support it. Bird praises the band's live show and credits them with paying attention to the principles of the music they play, but he decided against a long-term collaboration. The Zippers were at heart a pop band, and he wanted something more. (He does, however, appear on the group's third album, which is due in August.)

He sharpened his own live act and began sorting through his original tunes, paring them down and tightening them up. In late 1996 he recorded and released the CD Music of Hair, a mostly solo, mostly instrumental, and rather virtuosic affair. "At a certain point I realized that I couldn't keep doing everything," he says. "I was done with my exploration stage by the time I made my first record, but I wanted to document it."

A few months after Music of Hair came out, in February 1997, Bowl of Fire came into being, with drummer Kevin O'Donnell and bassist Josh Hirsch, who had both played with Bird in Charlie Nobody. Last August the trio, aided by guitarist James Mathus and singer Katharine Whalen from the Zippers, headed down to New Orleans to record Thrills. The result was far more casual than Music of Hair; the abundant technique that made the debut a bit stiff was replaced by a raucous energy fully compatible with the chameleonic complexity of the tunes. Bird sent a tape to Rykodisc, and by January he'd signed the contract.

More than anything, Bird now wants to forge Bowl of Fire into a tight, intuitive unit. "The music is so incredibly subtle," he says, "and it's really hard to get to the point where everyone is playing for the band." One big step has been the introduction of young ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson, who like Bird is 100 percent old school. Robinson played a few tunes with the group last month at Schubas, but he'll make his official debut with Bowl of Fire this Saturday and Sunday, in a pair of concerts at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Billed as two evenings of "southern hot swing," they'll feature classics associated with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Clarence Williams. Mathus will be in town for the shows, but Whalen is sick and had to cancel. For more information call the Old Town School at 773-522-7793.

Then, on Monday and Tuesday, Bowl of Fire begins an extended engagement at the Ivanhoe Theatre, where the focus will be on original material. (Mathus will perform at both these shows too, but not at subsequent performances, every Friday from May 22 until the end of June.) For more information call the Prop Theatre at 773-486-7767.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andrew Bird photo by David Kamba.

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