Pop review: Andrew Bird/Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12

Andrew Bird, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12

The term singer-songwriter doesn't quite cover it. Chicago native Andrew Bird, who first picked up the violin aged four, is the sort of extravagant talent who could wring a beguiling melody from a Marmite sandwich. At his best, there's alchemy at work; base musical elements are turned to gold, boffinish sound experiments are brought to life.

He begins tonight by building a mini symphony from the sparest of elements, strumming his violin like a guitar and looping the results, creating a percussion section out of layered handclaps and then overlaying vocals and his trademark whistle until he seems to be conducting a musical ensemble. Later, backed by three dark-suited musicians, he reverses the trick, stripping the chorus of the lovely "Effigy" down to a cappella harmonies. Suddenly the sound of thousands of audience neck hairs standing on end provide the accompaniment.

He's playing at the 2,000-capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire, something inconceivable a few years ago when fiddling, whistling songwriters were generally considered to be at the loonier fringes of the wyrd folk movement.

But Bird's career, like many of his songs, has progressed by increments. His 2007 album, Armchair Apocrypha, became a word-of-mouth success and his fifth solo album, Noble Beast - released in February - is shaping up to be a genuine crossover, charting at number 12 in the US, where it has now sold more than 100,000 copies, and doing brisk business over here too. You'll even hear him played in Starbucks where the slurp of frappuccinos adds to his distinctive musical palette.

But though he can produce moments of great beauty, Bird is equally capable of shooting himself in the foot. The problems arise when he tries to be too clever. Itchily inventive, he improvises new vocal melodies on tracks such as "Tenuousness" forgetting that the original gleaming melodies provided much-needed anchorage for his musical whims and wordy lyrics.

And then there's that whistle. It's a remarkable sound, high and pure and, used sparingly, it would be oddly haunting. But it's not used sparingly tonight and no matter how skilful he is, Bird is unable to scrub it of its cliched associations. Jaunty milkmen and Victorian chimney sweeps intrude into his songs when he purses his lips. What begins as an impressive trick swiftly becomes an irritant.

It's not enough to tarnish the night's finest moments. And in a way it's heartening to see Bird continue to indulge his whims as he approaches mainstream acceptance. But such is the quality of his songwriting and his mastery of the simple elements - a ringing guitar line, a heart-tugging melody - you can't help wishing that he'd cut out at least some of the bells and whistles and play his songs a little more straight.


Ally Carnwath

The GuardianTramp

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