Over the last several months, Andrew Bird has been playing concerts in the great room of his immaculately appointed 1920s-era home in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t invited a soul.
Well, that is not completely accurate. The preeminent violinist and preternatural whistler always invites a guest to perform with him—John C. Reilly, Blake Mills, and Jim James are alums. He also has a crew of about six people milling about, filming his performance, and checking audio–that sort of thing. It is a perfectly intimate setup in the most private space imaginable. Sometimes Bird’s wife demurely watches from afar as Bird’s team streams this quiet, personal performance to Facebook, where thousands of fans can semi-voyeuristically glimpse the musician jamming in his own home.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Bird’s home is the vastness of his living room. A coffered redwood ceiling stretches toward the firmament, while abundant light pours in through bay windows and French doors to bounce errantly off stark white walls. An elegantly recessed staircase connects the first floor to his second story. The next thing you notice are the acoustics. Sound fills this space so richly that Bird actually recorded a 2014 covers record here. Most recently however, he has been using the room for his concert series, Live From The Great Room.
This week’s guest is the National’s Matt Berninger, whom Bird admits is “the first guest I’ve had that’s not an instrumentalist.”
“Uh oh” Berninger says drolly in his baritone.
Without saying much in the way of an introduction, the pair launch into their first song of the session, “Pink Rabbits” by the National. Bird adds bright violin layers and impressive vibrato whistles while Berninger expressively delivers his lyrics, good-humoredly flubbing one of his own lines.
“I didn’t think I’d screw up my own song” Berninger quips to Bird, “I planned to screw up yours.”
“There’s still time” Bird jokes back.
Before the pair plays another song, they take some time to trade stories, bullshit, and catch up. They’re friends; it’s easy to tell.
“We go fairly far back,” Bird says before either try to pinpoint the exact inception of their friendship: Was it in Peripigan, France? Who were the guys that had the place there? Is that where they met? No, but one of them had just been there.
Watching these musicians figuring how to perform each other’s music is a treat, but seeing them be friends is infinitely more fascinating. I always assumed the two were at least acquaintances as they were “indie” music contemporaries in the mid 2000s—they often shared the same festival bills—but seeing them reminisce about common experiences adds depth to what could simply be half-hour of #content on a Facebook livestream. They are aware of their invisible audience but they don’t let that stiffen the experience. Instead, they are performing for each other.
Bird switches up his setlist and settles on “Heretics” from his 2007 album Armchair Apocrypha. After telling the story of writing the song on the road in Europe, he explains he chose it with Berninger in mind.
“The chorus of this song is in your register,” Bird says. “Plus it has a rather… how should I say, a cloudy outlook.”
Hearing these two perform this song takes me back to a bygone, halcyon era of my life, and without realizing it, I am grinning wide by the time they get to the sullen chorus: “Thank god it’s fatal, thanks god it’s fatal / not shy of fatal…”
In high school my best friend was named Mark and, though he would still beg to differ because of Midwestern modesty, he was and is a naturally inclined musician. His family owned a bucolic patch of land in southeastern Ohio, and part of the ritual of spending time there required playing guitar and singing around a gasoline-started bonfire. Around that time, we were discovering and exploring artists that we loved—Bird, The National, Elliott Smith, Old Crow Medicine Show–and trying to figure out how to perform their music for ourselves, drunk as fuck around a fire with all our friends. It was never so much about perfecting their music, rather, it had more to do with the process of figuring it out, having fun with the mistakes.
During Bird and Berninger’s duet of a song Bird recently recorded with Fiona Apple, Berninger totally whiffs his cue and the two seasoned musicians begin to laugh, and come very close to losing their shit altogether. It is this moment that transports me ten years in the past to Ohio, when my falsetto cracked during a whiskey-fueled rendition of “Wagon Wheel” and I basically fell over. In these two extremely talented musicians, I also see two fellow Midwesterners who aren’t very much concerned with a polished show, and are more content to amuse one another while making music.
To conclude the mini-concert, the pair cover Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and sing its chorus earnestly: “Oh it’s such a perfect day; I’m glad I spent it with you…”
The stream ends, and the two artists relocate in an adjacent room and talk about getting together for dinner in the near future. Tentative plans are made, Berninger calls an Uber, changes into a different shirt and is off to his next commitment, but I am sure he knows there is no way it is going to be better than the past half hour.
Images: Matt Grosinger