Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory: Easy Like Saturday Night

June 9th, 2014

Andrew Bird – Rough Trade NYC – June 7, 2014

There was a time when labeling someone’s music easy listening or adult contemporary was the ultimate put-down, and maybe it still is to some people. I was thinking about this on Saturday night as I watched Andrew Bird lead his new band, the Hands of Glory, through the sold-out early set at Rough Trade NYC. The listening definitely was easy: The quintet felt perfectly constructed to complement the violin and whistling sound. Bird can easily fill a room with sound on his own, so often an entire band can feel like an indulgence, which is exactly what they felt like Saturday, the sound falling comfortably on the cozy side of the cozy/cramped divide. Every sound seemed to find an echo or a resonance, whether it was a three-part harmony with Bird, Tift Merritt and bassist Alan Hampton, or Eric Heywood on pedal steel doubling a violin melody. And with old-fashioned lighting strung up around the stage, the feeling was one of warmth—easy as can be.

With its upright bass, brushes on drums from Kevin O’Donnell, pedal steel, whistling, violin, and the combination of jazz, classical, pop and country, the set was nothing if not adult, the musical equivalent of a glass of moderately priced Scotch to rid your mouth of the taste of another long workweek. The band was celebrating the release of Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of…, an album of Handsome Family covers, and the set featured many of these—including “Cathedral in the Dell” and “Drunk by Noon,” which were highlights—providing the show an old-timey country feel. Bird mentioned that the music was close to him, so much so that the songs felt like his own. And, indeed, he did make them his own, with the violin transforming to fiddle and back again within the same song, Bird’s whistles and brown-butter croon giving each song his distinctive color.

Bird mentioned that the show was the first of the tour and, at times, it felt like the full dress rehearsal before opening night, with a few false starts and missed moments, although each song still managed to feel like a mini-masterpiece, music for grown-ups and easy to swallow all at once. The final few songs were particularly strong, featuring some originals off recent releases, these taking on a reworked energy with the new band. “Pulaski at Night” and “Danse Caribe” were standouts, the band nicely clicking around Bird’s violin as the set closed to soon. —A. Stein