Thrills | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Thrills, Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, at the Mercury Theater. If Kurt Weill had been a Yankee in the first decades of this century and written rags, jumps, and tangos, they might have sounded a little like this eclectic collection of musical portraits. Indeed, everything that Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire ensemble does seems to spark wildly speculative analogies: what if Jascha Heifetz had studied with Doug Kershaw, for example, or Lou Reed, John Leguizamo, and T.S. Eliot had formed a combo called the Nitty Gritty Maestro Subgum Dirt Band?

In Thrills Andrew Bird adopts the format of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition to lend continuity to a program of such songs as "EtchaSketch Drag," "Minor Stab," and "The Ghost of Valeska Gert," whose roots lie in such diverse sources as German lieder, Hungarian czardas, and American swing. Spoken footnotes are supplied by poker-faced bandleader Bird; by contrast his vocals hover above surreal melodies like a patient etherized upon a table. Playing his violin with dazzling dexterity (sometimes in the manner of a mandolin or ukulele), he's backed by an equally nimble three-piece band; together they produce freeze-frame tacets, spine-chilling tremolos, and grace notes so intimate you might discover one lingering in your pocket days later.

Thrills has some slow moments in the second act, and at times Bird's lyrics are a bit too creepy-cutesy, but overall Bowl of Fire's awe-inspiring musical virtuosity redeems any hint of youthful self-indulgence.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

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