Setting is key to Andrew Bird's current tour, which brings him to the Stanford campus on Friday, Oct. 20. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has headlined notable spots such as The Masonic in San Francisco (recently host to ex-One Direction bandmember Harry Styles) and the Mountain Winery in Saratoga (the site of past shows by the likes of music titans Stevie Wonder and Kenny Rogers). Cathedral-like Bing Concert Hall, in turn, has been the site of concerts and recitals by legends such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist/keyboardist Herbie Hancock.
"It has a huge effect on the setlist and how I'm planning this tour," he said, when asked if audiences will hear a different type of show at Bing. "After a summer of doing massive outdoor venues, I'm looking forward to dialing it back and having a little more subtlety and nuance. And these rooms are ideal for that."said
The intimate nature of these shows even has an affect on the instrumentation that Bird is employing — a power trio with bassist/vocalist Alan Hampton and drummer Abraham Rounds. "Without (an additional) guitarist, I'll be playing more violin and more guitar myself," Bird noted, by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
"We'll be all switching instruments quite a lot," he went on to point out. "So it'll be different combinations of guitar and drums or bass guitar or violin" — and, hopefully, a bit of Bird's trademark whistling.
Looking back on his diverse career, it's natural that he'd be playing Bing. He's already collaborated with at least two musicians who have played there (mandolin maestro/"A Prairie Home Companion" host Christ Thile and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding). And throughout his career, he's been a musical cross-pollinator.
A classically trained violinist who's devoted to both the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young and the contemporary Americana duo the Handsome Family, he's played with the proto-swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers and the alternative chamber country ensemble Pinetop Seven.
The first half shows on this tour showcases another side of Bird's artistry. On October 5 he released "Echolocations: River," an instrumental album he recorded while standing under the Hyperion Bridge in the Los Angeles River. He'll be revisiting selections from it as well as its predecessor, "Echolocations: Canyon."
Filmmaker Tyler Manson captured Bird recording in Los Angeles and also in Canyon's Coyote Gulch in Utah. Though he'll be performing to a projection of Manson's filming, Bird said it won't be the same video that's viewable on YouTube and at his website, andrewbird.net.
"It's a film of the environment, and then it's manipulated in animation and layered images from that environment," he said. "The film has also been edited so it's not just the film of me playing with me playing on stage," he said. "That would be a little gratuitous."
Though it's instrumental, the music that Bird has composed is more foreground than background music. "It's more passive, of course, than a record full of songs with lyrics," he replied, when presented with this idea.
"But (River) has been manipulated a bit more," he continued. "I think it's appropriate because it's in an urban environment, and there's more traffic noise than a serene canyon. So this one does get a big more electronic, I guess you could say, for lack of a better word."
The titular echolocation refers to the biological sonar that some animals employ to "see" objects. Bird used that technique when doing the album and returns to it when playing the compositions live. With the field recordings, he'd close his eyes and incorporate his surroundings into the pieces. It was nature — and, in some cases, machine — as his accompanist.
There's a theory that the fewer musicians there are, the easier it is to improvise — like the relative ease of having a two- or three-way conversation versus the trickiness of a conference call or group discussion. Even going from his typical touring quartet to this trio, Bird is excited about the change.
During the second half of shows, he and his trio mates will be dipping into his own songbook for new arrangements.
"It'll be a little more free and interpretive of songs from "Are You Serious" (his last, song-based album, released in 2016) and previous albums," said Bird. "I'm in a mode to crack things open and reimagine them and enjoy having more space. I originally thought, 'I want to do a full-on jazz thing. It's not going to be standards or anything like that. But it's going to be my songs in a more freewheeling manner — more of a loose and subtle approach."
Bird's bandmates are another key to his memorable live performances.
"We still have the spirit of jazz. It's how you respond to the space — and each other — and not try to come in with ideas and force them on the audience," he said
Two projects in which Bird has been involved reflect this spirit of open listening and playing. He currently hosts the streamed "Live from the Great Room" series, in which he and a guest (ranging from Jackson Browne and Lucius to Thile and Spalding) perform with minimal to no preparation.
And in 2013, he participated in Red Bull Music Academy's A Night of Improvised Round Robin Duets in New York City with pianist/keyboardist Robert Glasper, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon (ex-Sonic Youth), drummer Questlove Gomez (The Roots) and others. "Doing the Red Bull Round Robin Duets, I learned the worse thing you could do was come in with a plan.
"There's a common thread between all these things we're talking about: It's about reacting to your environment," he said.
What: Andrew Bird
Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen Mall, Stanford
When: Friday, October 20, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $30-$65 (SOLD OUT — For possible returns, call the box office or visit live.stanford.edu/notifications)
Info:Info: Go to live.stanford.edu, or call 650-724-2464.