(Photo: Jason Stoff)
The soft-spoken 22 year-old British folk songstress Laura Marling began her set at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a simple, “Hello, my name’s Laura” as she slung the strap of her acoustic over her shoulder. Finger-picking nylon strings, Marling launched straightaway into “The Muse,” lead salvo off last September’s A Creature I Don’t Know while a fog machine’s issue enveloped her. She cut an altogether unassuming character, despite visually registering onstage as a single life-sized shock of luminescence – trained spotlights brightening her blond hair, fair skin, cream-colored sweater with generous sleeves, white capri slacks to an almost painful intensity.
With crooked, sharply angled arms cradling her guitar, her head sometimes thrown back and the pale column of her throat exhibited, Marling ran through the Spanish-tinged “Sophia” and the doomy “I Am A Master Hunter,” the former revealing a hidden talent: even on acoustic, Marling can shred pretty well. Also lifted from A Creature I Don’t Know was “Don’t Ask Me Why,” its defiant nature amplified by Marling’s own steadfast, almost immutable position at the mic, and “Night After Night,” perhaps her best rendition of the evening. Marling, with a capo in place on her guitar, insistently wove a spidery roundel tone throughout the latter, imploring in an emotionally charged timbre, “Night after night, day after day/ Would you watch my body weaken/ My mind drift away?”
Overall Marling’s turns at the mic were of the earnest, folksy variety, with music full of spirited strumming and lyrics reliant on turns of phrase and poetic intonations, employing similar meters in song but largely avoiding traditional verse-chorus structure. “Rambling Man” was Dylan-esque if simplistic, spaces between lines filled every time by Marling with staccato bursts of guitar. On “Once” guitar played quieter company, tagging along through vocal wanderings, an approach I felt worked better. Her willowy, golden locks done swaying at the behest of the Schnitzer’s vents and fans, Marling retreated from the space where the minimal spotlighting cast frescoes in deep shadows in favor of turning things over to Andrew Bird.
Renowned for being a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and for the innovative habit of building up a song in concert piece by piece, instrument by instrument, and looping the individual elements, the concert hall’s seats were understandably filled with palpable anticipation for Bird’s arrival. Having peered over my shoulder more than once at the sea of pale faces, staring back blankly like moons, extending back 25 rows, the audience hushing expectantly when they heard a roadie mic check was hardly surprising.
Emerging solo at first and with a scarf (is that man ever scarfless?), Bird cut a fine figure in his opening incantations, with wild swings on violin in the upper reaches, the steady thrum of constant plucking and some dulcimer-style bowing. Several women in the audience went wild for the plucking, others (of all genders, seemingly) for the sped up violin, still more for the complexity of the loops he was using to construct the semi-improvised instrumental from scratch – oh, what he could do with a few extra appendages, Doc Ock style! Happy with the auditorium’s acoustics, Bird opted to play additional material first while it was still just him up on stage. “Sifters” in particular sounded almost transcendent, Bird’s violin captured by the vaulted risers and falling in waves back down on the audience as the rich resonating qualities of his voice fanned out horizontally with every turn in the song.
Bird and his backing players’ (Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, Alan Hampton on bass, Martin Dosh on drums and looping board) performance spanning about 20 tracks total and with two encores. He focused primarily on latest release Break It Yourself but spared little in the delivery. Of past records, “Measuring Cups,” “Fake Palindromes,” “Tables and Chairs,” “Effigy” and “Scythian Empires” made appreciated appearances. But the band even found time for a few covers (including some great ones, particularly Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” done unplugged with Bird, Ylvisaker and Hampton crowded around the self-described “old timey mic”) and a funny and somehow fantastic rendering of “Bein’ Green.”
Admittedly, for all of the new material’s strength – the rollicking Van Morrison drums and bass on “Danse Carribe,” pop epic “Eyeoneye,” the understated and gorgeous “Lazy Projector” and surprise sleeper anthems “Desperation Breeds…” and “Give It Away,” it had a hard time keeping up with the more excitable entries elsewhere in the set, and it didn’t help that they at times, in reaching for indulgent overcoloring, could tend to sound washed out. But, like the 22nd-century high tech busker he is, Andrew Bird made it work, false starts, forgotten words and the occasional wonky loop aside.