Andrew Bird: Fever Year: Film Review

A gently illuminating look at a brilliant maverick musician.

The singer-songwriter shows his passion for music in this concert film/documentary directed by Xan Aranda.

NEW YORK – Near the end of Fever Year, Andrew Bird says he started playing music at age 4. “Music just swallowed me whole,” he explains. “I am what I do.” While that might sound like familiar artistic hyperbole, Xan Aranda’s concert film/documentary backs up the self-assessment with an affectionate portrait of the Chicagoan multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter as a man both defined and consumed by his craft.

Bird fits loosely within the wave of indie folk-rock that emerged in the last 15 years or so. His music has some stylistic overlap with contemporary artists such as Stephin Merritt, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, and bands like Polyphonic Spree and the Decemberists – the wildly eclectic influences, the marriage of lo-fi with orchestral, the epic song sweep, the esoteric lyrics. But Bird is also an unclassifiable mad-genius troubadour who sounds like nobody else. He never writes down a melody or arrangement because he figures anything good will stick in his head.

True to its title, Fever Year was made at the close of a 12-month period in which Bird and his band played a punishing 165 headline concerts, usually with the front-man running temperatures that would confine most performers to their beds. “I’m either sweating bullets or I’m freezing all the time,” he says.

The root of that physical condition is not identified, but the film observes the conflict of an artist who needs the connection of live performance to feel satisfied, even when he’s pushed to exhaustion. Bird amusingly wonders whether he has been ill all year or if he is simply evolving into another type of animal with a different metabolism.

The most revealing offstage material was shot on the family farm in beautiful rural Illinois, where Bird has converted a large barn into his studio. Concert footage was filmed over two nights in 2009 at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.

The opening number, “Sweet Matter” (a reworking of earlier songs “Dark Matter” and “Sweetbreads”), is an ideal illustration of Bird’s technique and the rich sonic depth of his music. Using a pedal-operated electronic looping station, he builds songs out of layered passages of music, starting with pizzicato violin plucking, then adding traditional bowing, guitar, glockenspiel, whistling and vocals. “I get to really crawl inside the songs and lose myself,” he later says, perfectly encapsulating the process we see happening.

The best of the concert sequences are tracks from his 2005 album, “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs,” and “Noble Beast” from 2009. There’s also a lovely, relaxed hotel-room rehearsal of the song “Headsoak,” with Annie Clark (who records as St. Vincent).

Bird confesses an aversion to playing shows that feel “too safe or accurate,” invigorating his performances with an element of improvisational risk. His musicians – Michael Lewis, Jeremy Ylvisaker and experimental percussionist Martin Dosh – weigh in with droll insights.

Premiering in back-to-back festival slots in New York and Vancouver, the film will be warmly embraced by Bird’s avid fans, even if, in conventional terms, he’s a somewhat resistant documentary subject. The musician’s private world is glimpsed but never fully accessed, and despite having close collaborators, he appears to exist almost in isolation. His claim that onstage and off- are no different to him suggests an artist immersed in his music to the exclusion of all else, which is what Aranda’s modest film captures with grace and delicacy.

Venue: New York Film Festival
Production company: Wegawam Music Co.
Cast: Andrew Bird, Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Michael Lewis, Annie Clark
Director-producer: Xan Aranda
Directors of photography: Peter Gilbert, Aaron Wickenden
Editors: Liz Kaar, Angelo Valencia
No rating, 81 minutes.