Questions without answers: Andrew Bird plays The Orange Peel

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Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird says that he has fond memories of North Carolina, “Mostly from the days when I was playing with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Every ex-pat I meet from North Carolina, something about where they come from works its way into almost every sentence or situation,” he says.

That might have something to do with his connection to native North Carolinian Tift Merritt, who was living near Bird in New York City. “I didn’t have many kindred spirits, so it became a much-needed outlet” he says of their time spent playing music together. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and another band couldn’t make its scheduled performance on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Bird and Merritt were tapped to step in. “We did the Townes Van Zandt song, ‘If I Needed You,’” Bird remembers. “That was our first show, and we’ve been playing since then.”

Merritt’s pedal steel player is now a part of Bird’s backing band, The Hands of Glory, and Merritt herself has signed on for the current tour which brings them to The Orange Peel on Thursday, June 12. “I love being in [Bird’s] old time band — Eric Heywood and I will be opening a handful of the shows, but mostly I’ll be singing and playing guitar and doing my best June Carter,” Merritt wrote on her own website.

A classically-trained multi-instrumentalist who, for years, eschewed pop music in favor of folk, jazz and blues sounds, Bird has reinvented himself over the course of an 18-year career. He’s touring his new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…. It’s an interesting project for a musician so closely associated with exploring and homing his own sound, because it’s a collection of covers. “Cover is not quite the right word,” he says of the 10 tracks written by Chicago husband-and-wife duo The Handsome Family. Bird has recorded with that band (one of many collaborations he’s taken part in), but not all of the songs on Things Are Really Great are ones he contributed to. “I learn one of their songs every six months,” he says. “This is just a collection of my favorites.

“What I like about their songs is that they never wear out their welcome,” he continues. “The first line that I heard, back in ’98, that sold me on them was, ‘the sky was a woman’s arms,’ from ‘Giant of Illinois.’ You could sing it every night because you don’t know exactly what it means. You could spin a whole novel out of what that could mean, but you’re never going to get to the answer. I don’t like answers.”

Rather than being true tributes — something else Bird is not fond of — the tracks are reworkings by a musician who frequently revamps his own material. “I work on these songs as if they’re my own,” he says. “I feed them into the same mill. A lot of the melodies are mine.” Ultimately, he says his goal was to present the album such that a listener unfamiliar with either the Handsome Family or Bird would still recognize the strength of the songs.

If that sounds especially revealing of his creative methods, Bird has never shied away from sharing his practice. In fact, he contributed to the New York Times blog “Measure for Measure” a platform for songwriters to “pull back the curtain on their creative process and on the pleasures and pains of being a musician,” according to the website. “I have no problem talking about it — I never thought it would get me anywhere to write about,” Bird says. “I’m not precious, even on stage, about exposing the process.”

But there’s a dichotomy between what he’s wants to divulge and keep private. “There’s this expectation that all song writers are baring their souls, but that wouldn’t be true to who I am,” the musician says. “I’m a classic introvert, but I get up on stage and there’s this clarity that comes out of me.”

After all, this is an artist who likes to rework music, seek out ambiguity and create new bands in the middle of a hurricane. Bird says, “I like things not to go as planned.”

WHO Andrew Bird and The Hands of Glory, with Tift Merritt
WHERE The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN Thursday, June 12, 8 p.m. $28 advance/$30 day of show

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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