Andrew Bird – Useless Creatures – At The Bell House 2/25/2012

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Let me throw out a theory about The Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It might be emerging as one of the best venues in the NY area. Yes, its incredibly far out there. The closest subway stop is not operational, you have to walk through a sketchy industrial area in the middle of the night uphill both ways in the snow to get there. There’s really not much close to it as far as bars and restaurants go. All of these factors only increase the quality of shows there.

Lets say you go to a show at the Bowery Ballroom, a time tested fantastic venue. You get all sorts of people. The drunk girls who are just stopping by on the way to their night out culminating in someone throwing up in a cab. The Bro Dudes who don’t really care about the show, but it’s easy to get to and there are hipster girls there, so they talk the whole time.  The group of friends who spends the quiet songs discussing who should get the coats from coat check.  The list goes on. At the Bell House, everyone in attendance legitimately wants to be there. They have made the trek. They have crossed the rivers or they have walked the miles. And if they want to just hang out and talk before throwing up in a cab, there’s a front bar for that with plenty of seating.

This became apparent on Saturday night when Andrew Bird performed a secret show at the venue under the name “Useless Creatures.” I thought about it….and I’ve never really seen a bad show at the venue. Every crowd has been respectful, the sound was always good, it was never a problem to get a drink, the douche factor was incredibly low. I also live a quick mile walk from the venue now….but that didn’t really play in, or at least I won’t let it for professional purposes. But now, onto the show.

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Andrew Bird is a unique character. Here’s an example. At the Tribecca Film Festival this year, they screened a film called “Andrew Bird Fever Year” about his year long tour for his previous album, in which he basically had the flu the entire time. His theory was, that in order to perform every night, his body had to conserve enough energy during the day, increasing the temperature until it was time to play. It was a beautiful film, visually, sonically, narrative wise, everything. It screened twice. It will never be released, no DVD, it will not tour the festival circuit, that’s it. He just wanted to document his live band at the time, because he thought they had achieved the absolute perfect sound for the music hall venue. That’s the kind of musician he is.

In the film, we see him working on several new songs in his barn. Beautiful melancholy type tunes, spacey violin loops, simple arrangements. Rumor had it that many of these songs would appear on his new album. His new album is coming out next week, so when an email went out to his mailing list saying a band called the “Useless creatures (wink wink)” would be playing the Bell House, I was in. They announced it Friday, the show was Saturday, and sold out quickly.

The show opened with Bird playing solo, and announced they would be playing the entire new record, start to finish, beginning with the last song, then starting over (yep.) This was the first show with his new band, basically the same as the old band, except his former bass player is now on tour with Indie Monster Juggernaut Bon Iver. Martin Dosh is still on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker is still on guitar. I don’t know the new bass player’s name, but he played very well.

Overall, the new album keeps to the vibe of the few songs that had been floating around for the past few months. More slow than fast, lots of harmony, lots of low octave swirling violin loops. His band seems to perform like another limb of his. The drums don’t sound like typical rock drums, the extra guitar plays fast picked tremolo lines, the bass sounds like his pizzicato violin bass during solo sets, only bigger.

I would say the standout track is called “Lusitania” with a catchy hook, nice groove, all those things we love about folky pop tunes. I believe St Vincent sings a verse on the record. (which is now streaming at NPR)

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At the end of the set, they came back and played a few hits, including my personal favorite “Tables and Chairs”  particularly for the line “There will be snacks….all kinds of snacks.”  and a few others.  They closed with several Handsome Family covers, all acoustic, just one mic at the foot of the stage.  Bird commented that this might be the perfect venue to do such a thing.  I would have to agree.

Review: Tune-yards @ The Bell House

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After my initial encounter with Tuneyards, expectations were high.  Any time an opening band who you have never heard of shows up a headliner, its always a nice surprise.  I think all of New York felt the same way, since the band sold out The Bell House in advance.  This was their largest headlining show to date, I think everyone who saw them open for the Dirty Projectors was also at this show.   Well, at least every person I know, and a few hundred others.

So on a Friday night with a heavy snow prediction, we trekked out to the Gowanus, ready to hear some worldly jams.  I have always enjoyed the Bell House.  Even when sold out, its not overly crowded, its always easy to get to the bar, I’ve never seen an overly douchey crowd in attendance, the sound is consistently good.  This may be because its in the middle of nowhere…but I’m ok with that.  Sometimes you have to think outside the box.  That box being easily accessible by public transit locations.  They do have minimal lighting though, which explains the blurriness of my photos.

Lets get right down to it, I’m getting over a stomach flu, and there is no time to waste.  This is a solid band, who in the future will do even greater things, but they do have a few obstacles to overcome. Tuneyards is primarily Merril Garbus , who plays ukulele, drums, and sings, accompanied by a bassist…and that’s it.  Its very stripped down, but sounds quite full due to the use of loops, and her fantastically huge voice.  Surprisingly though, I think she was suffering from some stage fright!  When it comes down to it, she is the show.  500 people are standing there, waiting for you to do something completely awesome, and you have to deliver.  She even said “I’m a little nervous right now, I’ve never had this many people know they’re here to see me!”  You could just feel the nervous energy.  Her voice shook at times, she seemed a little self conscious.  You wanted to just shake her and be like “You’re fucking awesome, stop thinking so much, just go for it!”

Even through the nerves…there were some shining moments.  She without a doubt has that special quality in a front person where you re like “yep, I can see why you’re going to be successful”  She has two tones of voice, there is one quiet and one loud.  The quiet…well, its quiet.  That was mostly where you could hear any apprehension, or maybe she justwasn ‘t warmed up, who knows.  But as soon as she opened up, it jumped about 50 decibels, and she just belted out the jams.  It was fantastic. It was like watching Aretha Franklin or something.  It makes you wonder how a person could produce so much sound.

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It was interesting watching her craft loops during live performance.  This basically means, she records a few seconds of sound, plays it over and over while adding more sound to it, eventually creating the sound of a full band.  Her percussion ideas were pretty interesting.  Itwasn’t always just Boom-Chick stuff, there were some ghost notes, some interesting fills, I was enjoying it.

I do hope she can accept the fact that shes amazing, and worthy of a crowd’s attention, I think that’s what it comes down to.  While the last performance was a straight up 10, i’d give this one an 8.  While still good, they are going to need to turn it up for next time.  And there will be a next time!

Notice the mic drilled into the book case...
Notice the mic drilled into the book case...

Moving on, here’s a quick note.  At a studio I was in recently, there is this little card on top of a speaker that says “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have”  And I really think those are words to live by when entering into any production endeavor.  DanielLanois frequently mentions that no matter the scenario, you have to work with your situation.  He records Bono live in the control room, no headphones with an SM58.  The Traveling Wilburys vocals were recorded in a pool house (bob dylan ‘s pool house, but that’s beside the point)  with 1 microphone in the center of the room.   This weekend I had the chance to adapt to a situation, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.  The band was recording some vocals, at my wonderful chateau in beautifully historic downtown Jersey City.  About 10 minutes before the session, I was setting up.   Mic, MicPre , Converter, Headphones……..mic stand?  no.   There was no mic stand in attendance.  OK, there had to be a way around this.  Broomstick?  no.  Tie a rope to the ceiling and hang it down?  nah.  Stereo Mic Bar?  That had to work.  That’s basically a 6″ flat bar with a mic mount on it.  So, I removed one end of it, leaving a threaded hole, found a piece of flat metal in a tool box, and drilled that shit into my bookshelf.  The results?  Perfect.  Well, i mean, its not like it had an impact on the sound.  But it certainly did the job, it added a bit of an improvisational style to the session, and that’s always a plus.