A Killer Andrew Bird Concert Sets the Stage for a Similar Show from Tift Merritt

by delarue

What’s the likelihood of seeing Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt on the same stage, let alone in the same band? It happened at Central Park Summerstage this month when the two Americana music icons joined forces, Bird on violin and a little guitar, Merritt on rhythm guitar as part of a dynamic five-piece band with pedal steel, bass and drums, jauntily exchanging verses with the Chicago songwriter in a set heavy with Handsome Family covers from Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of.

“In my opinion, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the greatest living American songwriters,” Bird told the sold-out crowd, and he could be right. And Bird, whose own songs are as haunted, and morbid, and literate, and relevant as the Handsome Family’s catalog continues to be, is the ideal person to cover them, if anybody is. Bird and Merritt continue on Bird’s summer tour; Merritt gets a momentary break for a rare, free duo show of her own with Americana guitar genius Eric Heywood coming up on August 7 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Early arrival is a must: 6 PM wouldn’t be too soon since she’s one of the rare artists who still sells out pretty much every room she plays.

Bird opened his show with a handful of intricately rhythmic, solo songs, fingerpicking his violin like a mandolin, his Spinning Double Speaker Horn behind him providing spooky, keening effects as he built layers of loops that spun back hypnotically through the mix. From there the band joined him, eventually gathering in a circle around a central mic before dispersing as the concert built momentum. They moved methodically through a nonchalantly bouncing take of the Handsome Family’s Danse Caribe, a moody, allusive version of Sifters, all the way through to the first encores, the fire-and-brimstone cautionary tale MX Missiles, which made a creepily apt segue with Handsome Family’s Cathedrals. On the way there, the young, touristy crowd were treated to uneasy versions of Tin Foil, Dear Old Greenland, Effigy and the understatedly savage post-9/11 anti-Bush/Cheney parable When the Helicopter Comes. The group also took their time through a lingering, ominous version of Pulaski at Night and the sardonic Something Biblical. With his wary, precise vocals matching the incisive focus of his violin playing, Bird was an intense presence, holding the group together as if they were on a secret mission. Merritt’s indomitable energy and soaring harmonies made a strong complement, livening the more upbeat, country-flavored numbers with her smoke-tinged wail.