After all of the Freakin' Weekending, pretending to care about college basketball, and St. Patrick's Day trying its damnedest to poison our livers/souls with green beer and amateur-hour car bombs, all we really wanted was a quiet evening in which the beer is prohibitively expensive and nobody's going to crowdsurf on us. Enter Andrew Bird, violin virtuoso and No. 2 seed in the tournament bracket of indie bands least likely to instigate a mosh pit, who returned to the Ryman Auditorium last night for the first time since 2009.
But, as pumped as we were for complicated violin music, we were double- (maybe even triple-) pumped for the opener: stand-up comedian Eugene Mirman. We can't remember the last time we saw a comedian open for a rock band, but as fans of jokes, we earnestly hope that this sort of thing makes a comeback. Mirman, to put it bluntly, absolutely killed. We're not sure how many people in the crowd knew that a comedian was opening the show, but they warmed up to him fast after jokes about Rick Santorum's jihad against Ricky Martin, Facebook and the suggestion that God is a 12-year-old with Asperger's. While we're pretty sure anybody going to an Andrew Bird concert isn't likely to be particularly right-leaning, his jokes about religion and Republicans felt edgier than normal, just by virtue of the fact that he was telling them onstage at a church — which just made them that much funnier.
And then Andrew Bird arrived.
The thing about The Ryman is that its reputation can swallow bands whole. This is more or less what happened in 2009, when Bird appeared to be a nervous wreck — botching songs, missing loops and forgetting lyrics. It was a good but uneven show, at its best when Bird left his head long enough to get into a groove. His return gig was, in contrast, as on-point as you can hope for a show at The Ryman to be, setting the mood immediately with a complicated, heavily looped jumble of violin and whistles. As annoying as we found the whole looping thing when we caught tUnE-yArDs last year at Exit/In — we just wanted to dance and hear “Gangsta,” not pause our partying to wait for Merrill Garbus to loop a timpani — we couldn't help but be mesmerized by what was unfolding in front of us.
It's a good thing we immediately fell in with loopy violin music, because that's exactly what we got. Bird and his band barreled through 22 songs, mostly culled from his recent effort, Break It Yourself, along with a slew of covers and not-so-deep cuts. As the set wore on, the band abandoned electricity to crowd around a single microphone with the intention of using the stage “like it was meant to.” Apparently, one of the many, many, many loop pedals that make a typical Andrew Bird show possible went up in flames earlier in the tour. Which is plausible, but could you really blame him if he was just looking for an excuse go off mic at The Ryman?
Yeah, the show wasn't without its issues — Bird stumbled more than a couple times during the acoustic bits — but somehow he managed to play it off as being charming. Or maybe we were all just won over by the reverence he treated the venue with, appeasing the country music gods with an encore devoted to country tunes like “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” and a two-shot of songs by The Handsome Family. Whatever it was, we can hardly recall a more satisfying Ryman show. The crowd calling for a third encore seemed to agree with us on that tip.
Now, if only he'd play some damn Squirrel Nut Zippers songs, we'd be in business.