ANDREW BIRD'S BOWL OF FIRE with Kelly Hogan & THE PINE VALLEY COSMONAUTS at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (April 20). $6. 416-598-4753.
it's a long way from geeky to funky, but somehow string savant Andrew Bird has made the transition. The change here isn't technical -- whether he's sawing off with the swingers in Squirrel Nut Zippers or with his own sizzling Bowl of Fire combo, Bird's chops are beyond reproach. It's conceptual. In the past, virtuosic 27-year-old violinist Bird used his sponge-like facility to absorb the defining traits of whatever music crossed his path, from Argentine tangos to Appalachian brea downs.
But his songs often seemed like academic exercises in ethnomusicology. With his Swimming Hour disc, Bird and his fiery friends have given up the history lessons, thrown out the rules and are now stroking madly with everything they've got. This ain't no Stephane Grappelli trip. We're talking 21st-century Irish ragas, Indian rumbas, Cuban jigs and other mind-melting mutations yet to be classified, all busted out with full-tilt garage-band gusto. The influence of controlled substances has not been ruled out.
"Much of the new material was written after a fateful visit to New Orleans," confesses Bird with a sly smile. "I fell in with a weird crowd with a self-destructive streak and, um a lot of crazy shit happened. I can't really get into the details, but I started writing these funky, physical songs unlike anything I'd done before.
"Hanging out with other musicians has helped me open up to the beauty of a three-minute pop tune where everything fits perfectly into place. As an outlet for all the sounds and rhythms stored up in my head, the pop-song format offers endless possibilities."
It sounds kinda nutty to hear Bird blab on about the wonders of the pop ditty with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a just-thawed caveman in a video arcade, but to Bird, pop music is no less stunning a revelation.
Until nine months ago, when he inadvertently wandered into a record store on the way home and picked up a copy of the Soft Bulletin album by the Flaming Lips he'd heard someone mention, Bird had never owned any contemporary popular music. Nada.
From the time he was handed a violin at the age of four, Bird was the boy in the classical bubble. Even while his college classmates were digging the Sisters of Mercy, Bird never got any closer to goth than Mozart's Requiem.
"I've been completely out of the pop music loop for most of my life. It began with the Suzuki method, this Japanese study discipline that swept the U.S. in the early 70s, where you learn music by ear at the age of three or four like you would a language. It was a pretty hardcore moulding experience."
At least that's what Bird thought until his well-meaning parents shipped him off to the Interlochen music camp in Wisconsin for further shaping. He barely made it out alive.
"That was insanely competitive. The other guys in my cabin were all into Dungeons and Dragons, and one of them tried to choke me to death. After five weeks my parents came to visit and were told they couldn't see me. They were, like, "Oh, my god, what have we done to our poor son?' and got me out of there quick."
That was really just the beginning of Bird's classical training, which he pursued with a diligence that bordered on obsessive. He pushed himself so hard that his arm gave out in 95, shortly after he finished his studies at Northwestern University. It's only in the last few years that he's been able to come to terms with what he half-jokingly refers to as "my other appendage."
"It's pretty hard to convey how intense my relationship was with the instrument," allows Bird, lowering his voice as if it might be listening in from the adjoining room. "I'm still a bit wary of it. I got so wrapped up in the whole mentality of "if I just practise four more hours' that I had to have my violin with me wherever I went. It almost did me in.
"After playing the thing every day for 22 years, my muscles just atrophied and I could barely move my arm. When the physical rehabilitation wasn't working, I had to undergo a process of deprogramming myself to get to a point where if I could never play the violin again I would be fine.
"I thought back to a time before I became so focused on the instrument and recalled how I used to read and write a lot more. That's when I got deeper into composition. It hit me that no matter what I'm doing technically or stylistically with the violin, if my songs aren't any good, nobody will pay attention anyway."
However psychologically and physically damaging the classical education was for Bird, he appreciates the benefits of the indoctrination process. Learning classical music by ear -- as an aural tradition -- made it easier to absorb the folk musics of Ireland, Scandinavia and the southern U.S. that all feed the Bowl of Fire's magnificent meltdown.
With the percussive wallop of drummer Kevin O'Donnell, Mighty Blue Kings bass boss Jimmy Sutton and the tasteful twang of Pine Valley Cosmonauts guitarist Andy Hopkins, Bird has finally hit his groove.
"Lately, I've been listening to more New York salsa music from the 60s and 70s, and I found it interesting how the solos, like those in pre-bebop jazz, aren't meant to take you on an aural journey, but to arrive at a point and make a concise statement.
"When I listen to latin music, I hear the rudiments of western classical melody with a kickass rhythm section underneath it.
"Once my ideas start coming, I've found that I can just flow over top of the rhythm. It's not like I'm playing from my record collection any more -- it's outside of the typical cultural and historical context. At times, I don't even recognize what's coming out of me, and that's very exciting."
2001 Swimming Hour (Rykodisc) 1999 Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc) 1998 Thrills (Rykodisc) 1996 Music Of Hair (Rec-;)