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Live Review and Photo Gallery: Andrew Bird with My Brightest Diamond at Fourth Presbyterian Church • Chicago

| December 15, 2022

Andrew Bird with special guest My Brightest Diamond

Gezelligheid concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Review and photos by Jeff Elbel

Absent since 2019, Andrew Bird’s seasonal Gezelligheid concerts returned in grand style this year. The homecoming event sold out a series of seven nights at the stately setting of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Magnificent Mile. The weather was gloomy and wet outside before Wednesday night’s performance, but all was warm and serene inside the sacred space. It was Bird’s fifth concert in the run, performing in the chancel under towering stained-glass windows. A pair of rotating Victrola-styled Janus horn speakers (from local builder Ian Schneller’s Specimen Audio) rose behind Bird as centerpieces, with a pair of 9-foot-tall yellow horn speakers standing at either side of the stage like towering sunflowers.

Bird has carved a unique corner of the musical landscape for himself. His indie folk-pop palette pivots upon inventive use of violin, an amiable and melodic baritone mumble, sonorous whistling, and equal affinity for western pop songcraft, classical rigor, and Ethiopian jazz.

The show featured a clutch of songs from this year’s Inside Problems album, but Bird made full use of the holiday setting by highlighting six songs from 2020’s wistful and warm Hark! collection.

Bird began alone with “Hole in the Ocean Floor” but was soon joined by veteran collaborator Alan Hampton on double bass, acoustic guitar, and harmony vocal. The pair played “Make a Picture” and Hampton’s festive instrumental “Glad” before joining in winsome harmony for “Night’s Falling.”

“Excuse me while I remove my exoskeleton,” said Bird afterward, pausing to remove a metal spanner from a wrist brace on his right arm. Bird explained that his injured wing was improving and he’d be glad to be rid of the contraption. Hampton remarked that for a violinist, shedding the support from his bowing hand was tantamount to rising from a wheelchair to walk. Looking around the church, Bird replied, “It’s the right environment for it, I suppose.”

The pair then played the title track, “Inside Problems,” a song about striving toward renewal. However messy the process, Bird sang his declaration describing “every inch of us a walking miracle.” Afterward, Bird revealed the source behind the song’s closing words, “Oh my God, I just got born.” The lyric referenced a New Yorker cartoon depicting a baby in a neonatal unit uttering the words while taking a selfie for Instagram on a cell phone.

Following “Eight” and “Chemical Switches,” Bird and Hampton performed a charming version of Cole Porter’s “So Nice to Come Home To.” Bird explained that each night of Gezelligheid has featured a different jazz standard as he considers songs for a possible jazz album. Bird finished the song with scat-styled whistling over Hampton’s nimble figures on the upright bass.

The pair moved to stage left to sing and play to a single microphone, swapping violin and bass for acoustic guitars as appropriate to the given song. The hall was lit red and green for “Greenwine,” which recast The Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” to the tune of “Greensleeves.” “There’s only so much wine you can drink in one life, but it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass,” sang Bird. 

Bird was briefly entangled by the tongue-twisting lyrics to Shel Silverstein’s “Twistable, Turnable Man” but made a full and good-natured recovery. He followed with another surprise, making a debut performance of star-crossed folk singer Jackson C. Frank’s 1965 single, “Blues Run the Game.” “When I’m not sleepin’, you’ll find me cryin,’” sang Bird during the tearjerker.

Following “Sisyphus,” opening artist Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond) returned to the stage to cover Phoebe Bridgers’ role on the recent single “I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain.” The song set a poem by Emily Dickinson to Bird’s music and melody. In October, Bird told Vanity Fair that the song explores an internal world, describing the song as “one of the more perfect explanations of what depression feels like.”

The show produced another relatable moment of humanity as Nova, Bird, and Hampton joined voices on John Cale’s “Andalusia.” Bird stalled on the second verse before Nova found the correct lyric sheet and presented it with a flourish. The trio completed the song with warm smiles and rich harmony.

The main set neared its conclusion with the twinkling “Alabaster” and stirring encouragement of “Never Fall Apart.” Before the final song, Bird offered thanks to his partners and audience. “These really are my favorite shows of the year, so it’s great to be back,” he said. The sprightly “Plasticities” ended the set with cartwheeling violin lines and immersive sound that cascaded from the stone walls as the Janus horns spun behind Bird and Hampton. Bird looped layers of his sonorous whistling and pitch-shifted them to sound like actual birdsong as the final notes rang out.

The pair encored with the sweeping ode to Chicago “Pulaski at Night” and finished with a jazz-folk rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that would have suited Bird’s old outfit Bowl of Fire.

Shara Nova’s opening set as My Brightest Diamond premiered a set of new material alongside older favorites. The fresh fare related to the evangelical ministry of Nova’s grandfather, who traveled the southern United States in the early part of the 20th century. The classically trained singer accompanied herself with glissando strums of autoharp during “Have You Ever Seen an Angel.” Listeners were invited to get cozy (reflecting the loose definition of Dutch term “gezelligheid”) before “A Stagnant Hour.” Nova turned a coatrack into a theatrical wardrobe supply, donning a black cloak and hat over her shimmering white jumpsuit during new song “Black Sheep.” “As a pastor’s daughter and granddaughter, I start to act out when I get into spaces like this,” Nova had explained beforehand. “If you ever see a black sheep, don’t give ‘em any rules,” she sang with jazz-schooled inflection while walking down the center aisle and coaxing the audience to sing along.

“A Million Pearls” was a song of defiance and self-worth. “Thanks to all the times it was said, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,’” sang Nova. “Well I did, I do, I do,” she added. Nova donned a yellow raincoat and hoisted a blue umbrella during “Sway.” “Fourth Presbyterian just turned into a rowboat,” she said mid-song,  leading the audience to take up the imaginary oars from their positions in the pews. “Be Brave” celebrated the value of the dissenting voice and the outrageous pursuit of hope. Nova’s set concluded with “I Have Never Loved Someone,” a heartbreakingly gorgeous expression of a mother’s eternal love. The emotive song was rendered with power and drama sufficient to move many to tears. 


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