During the mid 1990s 31-year-old Andrew Bird played violin with North Carolina hot-jazz oddballs the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Today, on his family’s farm in Illinois, he records solo records full of ghostly acoustic guitars and unusually precise whistling. A few months ago, he told me over the phone that his idea when he moved into the place was that he’d bring his band, the Bowl of Fire, to the barn and they’d make music together; instead, he ended up settling into a vacuum where he allowed himself to run wild with his own ideas. For Bird’s latest album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, “the story would usually go that I went back to civilization and started collaborating with people again,” he laughed. “But that wasn’t really true.”
At Southpaw on Sunday night Bird tried to bridge the distance between those two modes of working: He had a drummer, Kevin O’Donnell, with him, and he made amiable Normandy-hotel-story small talk with the unexpected capacity crowd. Yet he also spent most of his 16-song set playing beautifully with himself; when the black curtain inched apart, there he was, violin pressed against his chest, guitar slung around his back, glockenspiel set up on a stand before him. Sometimes he’d flit between the instruments; other times he’d utilize one of those digital sampling pedals so popular with overachieving singer-songwriters and Providence noisecore acts.
The approach allowed Bird to retain some of the dark lushness of Eggs. In “Skin Is, My” he unleashed a swarm of strings that could’ve been lifted from a Wes Anderson film, then layered a fuzzy spaghetti-western guitar line over it; in “MX Missiles” he made like an art-folk Stephen Malkmus, filtering emotion through his wordy liberal-arts sangfroid. Occasionally O’Donnell hunched over his snare and whipped out paradiddles like the dude from David Gray’s “Babylon,” as Bird rocked with a polite Celtic fury. “I’m working on a little handbook for the apocalypse,” the singer said, introducing a new song. Minus a raincoat, he’s got all he needs.