Though he’s known for his experimental live performances–mixing loops, drum machines, and, of course, whistling–at heart Andrew Bird is a consummate folk musician. Since starting out with the North Carolina swing outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers in the late ’90s, Bird has approached folk music from a variety of angles. He’s a classically-trained violinist, comfortable with country as well as jazz, blues, and pretty much anything else he sets his mind to.
The past few albums have found the singer stripping away some of the studio trickery that surrounded his earlier releases. His latest record, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, is a collection of songs written by the Handsome Family, fellow Chicagoans who also ran in the alt-country scene of the mid-90s. In a recent performance and interview in Studio 1A, Bird likened the Handsome Family’s songwriting to Townes Van Zandt: simple, dark, and immediately affecting. For the performance, Bird and his band (which includes the sublime Tift Merritt on vocals and guitar and Alan Hampton on bass and vocals) played around a single microphone, like they did in the old days. It’s a perfect approach for a song like “Giant of Illinois,” putting the spotlight on the tight harmonies and unique storytelling.