Andrew Bird is not an uncomplicated performer. For any given song, Bird will start by plucking out an intro on his violin, stamping on an effects pedal with his foot, which loops the sound over and over. Subsequently, he takes his bow to the violin's neck, and that becomes its own loop. Then he'll whistle, a talent for which he's become well known, and grab a guitar. Finally, he sings. There's a lot on Bird's plate, even just for one tune.
"The looping stuff is more perilous, but you're hiding behind the effect, the wall of sound," Bird says. "Like a song like 'Plasticities,' once it gets going, it's going. If it's looped right, it's going to be on that train."
But lately, Bird has ditched the mechanical aids. For his fittingly declared "old-time shows," Bird and his full band share one microphone in the middle of the stage like a bygone bluegrass band. And in Bird's case, he'll be sticking to just one instrument: the violin.
"It's a big dynamic shift that I think has proven to be really good for us and the audience," he says. "A lot of the songs get quite complex, and the other songs, you can't tell who's making what sound. There's a lot going on, a lot of looping. This kind of recalibrates everybody. And then I have no monitor. I just sing into the microphone."
This old-time sound has been recorded for Hands of Glory, an album that's being released on Oct. 30 as a companion piece to 2012's Break It Yourself, which is already fairly stripped-down itself. Hands of Glory will feature more simplistic takes on some of Break It Yourself's songs, plus some country covers (by the Carter Family and the Handsome Family) and spirituals. Many of the songs are ones Bird will sing before a show to warm up and find his voice, like the old folk song "Railroad Bill." As Bird says, the pop jazz from his early work is just a hair's breadth away from bluegrass, which is a hair's breadth away from western swing, which is a hair's breadth away from straight-up country, so this really isn't an unexpected progression for the musician.
Half of Hands of Glory was recorded in an old church in Louisville, Ky. and the rest was completed in a barn, and the groaning aura of these aged spaces is apparent. "The first couple songs that were done in the church have kind of like a heavy, humid sound to them. You can almost hear the humidity," Bird says. "And then the ones done at the barn were even more stripped down ... The drums were out on the back porch, because you just can't make drums sound right, but nonetheless you can hear the crickets and the wood ceiling of the barn and floorboards creaking. I like that."
When Bird reinterprets his own songs, he boils them down to their basic elements. Every song becomes chords, but nothing is set in stone. This technique really shines in the live show. "Your gestures become more broad and you're just super animated, and I like what that draws out of you," he says. "The traditional PA set up, with monitors and everything, lends itself to a disconnect on stage." Now they're trying harder to connect to the audience. For his part, Bird says he plays his violin like a guitar and sings his ass off. "You can't hear, but you end up singing much better because of that. You're having to use the stomach muscles to push and project to the back row, and everyone just sings so much better because the sound is mingling right there before it hits the microphone."
While lately Bird has been on this realist kick, he's not sure what he's going to do next. He might go back to controlling everything again, doing the dance with his effects pedals, but there's merit to both approaches.
"Every song could be reimagined and reinterpreted. Honestly, it's not about the song," he says. "It is, but it's really about the performance."