Andrew Bird at The Masonic, by Jon Bauer
Andrew Bird (photo: Jon Bauer)

Accomplished singer-songwriter Andrew Bird made his Masonic debut on Monday night to a nearly sold-out audience.

Touring in support of his 12th studio album, Are You Serious?, Bird has adopted a more raw, and subsequently honest, role on stage. He has been known for his ornate, delicate melodies and light, fluttering lyrics, which are usually incredibly imaginative and fantastical in a Dr. Seuss sort of way. On the new record, Bird reconnects with his true nature, abandoning “the valley of the young, the small-seeming dramas, the brunch and misery for a far more perilous place where your heart breaks from cradle to grave.”

This is Bird’s first solo effort with a full backing band. Drummer Ted Poor and bassist Alan Hampton worked on the record in the studio and also bring their rhythmic core to the stage, while guitarist Steve Elliott fills in the nuances and micro-tonal oddities that flesh out Bird’s compositions.

On stage, the Lake Forest, IL native looks like he walked right out of the blustery Chicago streets and onto the stage, but it is not long into playing before he warmed up and shed the scarf. If anything, it set the tone early as he performed the opening song, Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda,” in a sole cannon of light with his violin, creating loops and building a main theme that persisted throughout the performance. It was very gentle, very serene, and very captivating.

Andrew Bird at The Masonic, by Jon Bauer

The band filtered in as the music approached crescendo and into the lead track on Are You Serious?, “Capsized.” From The Mysterious Production of Eggs came “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” a soft and melodramatic reflection that bounces between an intricate violin run and a thundering distorted guitar, complete with lyrics that focus on little odd, head-twitch-inducing truths. He moved swiftly into uncommonly played tunes from 2009’s Noble Beast and “Tenuousness” followed by “Lusitania” from 2012’s Break It Yourself.

A sublime segue into the title track of the new album followed, which Bird introduced with dry wit as if he was actually responding to an audience members’ actions: “Are You Serious?” Heavy on his trademark whistling (it is kind of scary how aligned he is with his namesake in nervousness and care and natural melody alike), he continued pulling from the new record with “Truth Lies Low” and “Puma.” Each track highlighted a songwriter refined, yet wholly true to his craft and its differing possibilities.

Bird was extremely connected with the audience, and let his guard down when he debuted the original tune “Shoulder Mountain” in the middle of the set, saying it was a good song, but didn’t make the cut on the album.

Continuing the support for the new album, Bird began talking about having a special guest joining him for the next song, but then acknowledged he was teasing the crowd.

“I usually like to do this one as a duet,” he started. “But Fiona

[Apple] didn’t join me from LA. It was great having her the last few nights but I’m back to doing it myself. After all, it’s how it began, an internal conversation.”

Still, he did oblige with “Left Handed Kisses.” Listening to and watching him perform the song solo and not hearing Apple’s parts as they are on the record enhanced the fragile conversation. It works well as a duet, but Monday’s performance was especially powerful in its own right because of a lack thereof — rather than call-and-response, it amounted to anxious poetry.

Andrew Bird at The Masonic, by Jon Bauer

“Roma Fade” off of the new album followed, and at a much faster tempo. Bird matched the vibrato of his violin with the warble in his throat in truly impressive fashion. It was incredibly difficult to separate the distinct sounds, even as they bounced inside their individual pitches before Bird abruptly ended it and dipped back into his roots.

A soft arpeggio introduction signaled “Three White Horses” from the 2012 release Hands of Glory and Bird created an intricate loop out of it, layering soulful and deep violin on top. Nearly every track featured some sort of onstage build-up. Between the violin, slide guitar and whistling, the natural tones leapt off of the stage in total harmony before picking up in double time and going into an extended and experimental jamming sequence that evoked actual birds, R2-D2, and outer-space theremin tones as the song melted into “Plasticities.”

The seventh song off the new record, “Valleys of the Young,” began with an upbeat violin intro that had people on the floor and in the balcony pairing off to dance. Bird’s guitar had the reverb on full, and every Pete Townshend-esque windmill chord came with a punching tone that ensured every downbeat was felt on your face.

Andrew Bird at The Masonic, by Joshua Huver

Drawing heavily from 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha near the end of the show, Bird began waxing poetic on his hometown Chicago, and how much San Francisco has always meant to him. “From the tour I booked myself in 1998, playing the Elbo Room,” he said, interrupted by obligatory applause, “San Francisco has always had my back.”

He then paid tribute by playing his rarely-played ode to Chicago, “Pulaski At Night,” featured on an EP in 2013. The set closed with the title track from Armchair, ending the show just after 10:30pm. Somehow Bird still manages to retain an air of seriousness and heartfelt message among lyrics full of contradictions and nonsense imaginings; a natural reflection of the human spirit.

Andrew Bird at The Masonic, by Joshua Huver

Photos by Jon Bauer and Joshua Huver