On Sunday, April 11th, Andrew Bird took part in his fifth livestream concert of the pandemic in his Performance Now! series, and this time featured special guest Jimbo Mathus, which reunited these former Squirrel Nut Zippers collaborators. But this reunion was preceded by a much bigger one when Bird and Mathus got together to record and release their collaborative These 13, which arrived in March 2021. Several songs from their new album were included in the performance streaming from Ojai, California. Audiences buying tickets to the Performance Now! event also received exclusive access to watch the director’s cut of the new documentary about the making of These 13, directed by Tyler Manson. The evening featured a very full performance, including an encore, bringing it to a total of 18 songs, all complemented by the atmospheric outdoor setting.
Andrew Bird opened with several songs that set the tone for the performance and this also demonstrated Bird’s methods of using looping pedals to create his ethereal violin-driven soundscapes and also his virtuosity at playing the violin guitar-style to highlight key, simple notes at times. “Sisyphus” brought in another of Bird’s signature elements, whistling, and showed how versatile it can be as an instrumental element. This mini-set served as an excellent introduction to the musical elements of the past, creating a sense of timeless or the suspension of time through Bird’s reflective compositions.
Bird and Mathus created the album These 13 as an intentional dive into musical traditions, one they had not taken together since SNZ days, and one in which they both took up vocal and instrumentals parts. They opened together with “Sweet Oblivion,” the second track from their album, a Bluesy start with a sense of being dropped into the middle of an ongoing musical conversation whose reflections on the presence of the past seemed appropriate given that the collaborators had known each other nearly 30 years.
Their rendition of “High John” really pulled up the wealth of cultural as well as musical tradition reflected on These 13, “a song about a root” used to “cast spells,” both love spells and for gambling, as Mathus later explained. But as interesting as the context for celebrating “High John” was the fact that, as Mathus said, he and Bird really “got up in the spirit of that one.” They did. One or two songs from Bird and Mathus was enough to remind audiences that it’s outstanding to be a master of performing certain types of music, but astonishing when an artist is also able to erase any sense of distance between the audience and the music’s time or place of origin when performing it. Followers of either Bird or Mathus would not have been surprised to see them display this uncanny ability during their collaborative livestream concert, but in putting together the album These 13, they may well be taking that gift of theirs to another level.
The majority of the songs from the new album got play time during the show, giving a really telling display of the sweep of styles and themes encompassed by the collection. From “Encircle My Love,” a ballad sung by Bird, to “Poor Lost Souls,” with lyrics written by Mathus about Los Angeles, and “Dig Up The Hatchet,” a relationship song that Bird and Mathus wrote together, the meeting of modernity with tradition was consistently on display. And that may be These 13’s boldest leap, those moments where Bird’s vocals don’t shy away from mentioning a smart phone in “Hatchet,” any more than revealing the crying of the “haint” (a haunting being) next to him in “Bell Witch.”
Two of the most impactful performances (though that’s hard to choose) were probably “Beat Still My Heart,” with Bird alternating between bow and hand-plucking on the violin and dramatically building up the narrative with outstanding vocals, and Bird and Mathus’ main set closer (and album closer), “Three White Horses and a Gold Chain,” with Mathus on vocals but a duet feeling creeping into this song, which directly addresses death, until both Bird and Mathus concluded by whistling together. Interspersed towards the end of the main set, and then in the encore, were a Squirrel Nut Zippers song, which heightened the “reunion” feel of the concert, “The Ghost of Stephen Foster,” and significantly earlier songs by Andrew Bird including “Vidalia,” “Some of These Days” and “Candy Shop,” which was their upbeat final song of the evening.
As interesting and impactful as the live concert was, as potentially insightful for audiences was viewing the These 13 documentary included with the ticket for the show. The 40 minute director’s cut of the film rolled out footage of Bird and Mathus playing many of the songs from the album in dramatic outdoor settings, including some of the songs not included in the live show, intercut with commentary from both Bird and Mathus about their long relationship. Hearing Bird and Mathus attempt to describe each other in terms of personality, skill, and ability was particularly entertaining and heart-warming since, as any fan must realize, they have dramatically different approaches to music that are reconciled by their love for traditional sounds. The film also contains footage of solo playing from both Bird and Mathus, some insights into the songwriting process for the album, and the collaborators’ own thoughts on the final result. As Mathus says, “For a seemingly Folk record, there’s a lot of concepts in there.” The snippets of historical reflection and explanation included in These 13 are also golden. Don’t sleep on seeing the official release of the documentary (which is about 22 minutes long) any more than on picking up the album itself. https://www.amazon.com/These-Jimbo-Mathus-Andrew-Bird/dp/B08SH41WM6