Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Directed by: Xan Aranda
One of the more prolific artists in recent years has been Andrew Bird, the Chicago singer/songwriter/violinist who has flood the music scene with almost obsessive touring and eight albums in the last decade. A week ago, my wife and I caught a director’s screening of Fever Year, a documentary about Bird. Although over a year after its debut, the film never was widely released and still remains unavailable on DVD per Bird’s request. But while only currently available to see through screenings, the film gives some very interesting snapshots into the life and ethic of this unique artist.
The film serves as sort of a concert film/ music documentary hybrid, with the film loosely telling the story of Andrew Bird’s crazy “fever” year of constant touring but consistently bounces back to a performance at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre in 2011. The film loosely follows the fever year narrative but also bounces back to Bird’s early years in music and also explains how he has come up with his creative process and what keeps him going.
One of the biggest highlights of the film is documenting the evolution of Andrew Bird’s music and live show. The film shows some funny footage of Bird playing tiny clubs with his old band, Bowl of Fire, and playing kind of silly swing music. Then, Bird sort of discovered his distinctiveness in his family barn by discovering what he could create by looping his voice, whistling, guitar, and violin. Then Bird blew up as one of the grandest one-man shows before adding drummer Martin Dosh, who as a solo artist used the similar improvisational process with percussion that Bird does with violin. Then Bird added a guitarist and bassist to his live show taking the self-improvisation of his solo show into more of a group dynamic like a jazz quartet.
Even what drives Bird musically is very much a jazz ethic. Bird says he hates to play a song the same twice and rather chases after “ghosts”, or those magical moments where everything clicks on stage. While many rock acts might aim to bring a lot of energy or entertain the crowd and a lot of folk acts may aim to connect with their audiences, Bird instead searches with his band each show to create a unique and timeless moment on stage like a jazz outfit would.
Another interesting tidbit I found about Bird was his songwriting process. People always comment on the verboseness of Bird’s lyrics with wordy titles like “Tenuousness”, “Plasticities”, and “Anonanimal”, as well as filling his songs with hyper-literate wordplay like “From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to Porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and harbor-sorts who hang around in ports a lot.” In the film, Bird talked about how each song has very personal meaning to him, but he masks them in some more abstract language. He also discussed how he has a weird fascination with the sound of words and how the sound of certain words have a different meaning than the words themselves, as is the case with “Tenuousness”.
Fever Year also exposes some of Bird’s more interesting eccentricities, from his multi-colored mismatching socks that he wears each show to the unsigned manifesto letter he sent his now touring manager. Bird who is always classy as ever and often dressed to the nines, still remains sort of a muppet of a character with all his little twitches and defining characteristics.
Throw in a duet with the always wonderful St. Vincent, and you have a pretty nice documentary. My one big knock is that the narrative is a bit vague and the film doesn’t always know what it wants to be, but for the most part, it’s a fascinating look into the life of one of the most admirable musicians around today.