Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 20, 2009
Paramount Theatre, Feb. 12
At the best merchandise table in indie music, the deluxe edition of Noble Beast, Andrew Bird's affecting new LP, sat a half-inch thicker than the standard issue, with different artwork that appeared hand-painted. Amid its complementary tour poster, T-shirts, and $10 boutique live discs not available in stores, this über-Beast stood tall, like a miniature Gutenberg Bible. Inside, a bonus CD of Useless Creatures creeps and crawls with an album-length arc of instrumentals whistled, fiddled, and plucked by Bird in trio with double-bassist Todd Sickafoose and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. If Noble Beast houses the zoo, Useless Creatures must be the reptile house. Chicago's musical biologist began his long-sold-out solo appearance at the Paramount with a lengthy wordless suite of music, if not drawn from Useless Creatures, then perfectly at home in its scales. The huge, Victrola-like speakers Bird utilizes live, coupled with a xylophone, guitar, and his skinny tie and suit – and even his shoes quickly discarded – gave the whole stage the appearance of Sherlock Holmes' study, its mastermind meditating through his violin. A burst of whistling, hand claps, and fiddle clusters, quickly looped through foot pedals, built his classical recital into a full-blown symphony. Not a word whispered through the full house. Finally, Bird looked up when asked how it was going. "Hi everyone. It's going pretty good," he grinned. "I like this place. I got to play Carnegie Hall last week, and I have to say this is just as good." Certainly he delivered a Carnegie Hall-worthy performance. A sock monkey made to resemble the beloved Birdman, brought out by a stagehand ("I forgot my monkey"), preceded 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, "Plasticities," Noble Beast opener "Oh No" ("arm and arm with all the harmless sociopaths"), and "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left," which got the 90-minute set rolling, molting. New set list standards-to-be "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" and "Anonanimal" went head to head with a pair of equally fantastic alternate realities in covers of Windy City minstrels the Handsome Family, including "The Giant of Illinois." An ancient spiritual and new Beast "Natural Disaster" came off good and Gutenberg, as did a trio of songs in two encores that ended with the title track of early Bird turning point Weather Systems (2003). In the tune's complex weave of strings, hooks, and Bird's aviary cry, the evening's Noble Beast ruled creatures great and small.