You've gotta hand it to people who make their way in the world by focusing on their unique skills, however odd -- even if that's just being the best whistler you know. For Andrew Bird, that meant hitting the road solo, armed principally with the ability to overdub violins live, whistle and fly. (OK, that last one is a slight exaggeration.) Since those aren't the most obvious building blocks of pop stardom, it's a little astonishing to encounter claims that Bird's 2007 album, Armchair Apocrypha, sold over 100,000 copies, and that he recently played for a hometown crowd of 15,000 in Chicago.
It's been a slow, steady climb for Bird, and the past decade or so has included his early band Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, as well as collaborations with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and countless sideman recording credits. Early on, his shows were more elevated and spacious than raucous. His Three Rivers Arts Festival performance a few years back, with Martin Dosh on percussion and keys, began simply by summoning the audience's attention with a long, drawn-out whistle.
His live show has evolved since then, and his band now contains two additional musicians, which adds more rhythmic propulsion and clatter to new songs like "Fitz & The Dizzyspells," from Bird's January album, Noble Beast. Yet there's something about Bird's warblings that make his music still seem intimate and small, no matter how big his onstage band or his following get.
I suspect it's mainly his obscure lyrics -- Dylan's tongue-twisters area arena-rock sing-alongs by comparison -- that simultaneously intrigue yet push the listener away. Name-dropping the likes of "proto-Sanskrit Minoans" and "Uralic syntaxes," Bird's hyperspecificity can seem intended to exclude everyone who doesn't share his nerdly word-zeal. As Kate Kiefer writes in Paste's review of Noble Beast, "Bird's constant textbookish references make it almost impossible to connect with whatever sentiments lie beneath his gratuitous wordplay, and it's hard to know what any one song is really about."
Yet as Kiefer suggests, we're probably not supposed to pay the words much mind. The main delights of Noble Beast remain Bird's mellifluous croon and unique instrumentation, which combine beautifully with the recording's roomy, natural sound on standouts like the opener "Oh No" and "Anonanimal." Bird is still honing the same natural, if unusual, attributes that have sustained him -- and our interest in his music -- from day one.
Andrew Bird with A Hawk and A Hacksaw. 8 p.m. Tue., April 7. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $22.50-27.50. All ages. 412-622-3131