Story by Matt RichterEastside corner icon Gil's Cafe serves a mean Pork Mountain, and other brunch fare, to throngs of bustling Brew City natives each Sunday. The sparse interior of the Milwaukee mainstay follows a worn carpet runner from the front glass door, past the six-stool bar and up the narrow back staircase to an even more sparse second floor usually scattered with wood tables and creaky chairs, supporting hung-over, disheveled students and steam-cleaned yuppy clientele sucking down dark coffee and eggs. Every scuffed rubber heel and dragged chair leg echoes off the hard wood floor and bare brick walls, building on the low roar of breakfast chatter and clanking forks on half-eaten plates. A packed upstairs often requires a two-top to yell their conversation; downstairs, patrons yell even harder over the apparent train depot overhead.
Photos by Matt Schwenke
Saturday night, Gil's second-floor soiree drew a full house, and put the Sunday brunch crowd to shame. Tables were shuffled to the side, the wooden chairs lined up across the middle of the room. A meek stage near the back, flooded in soft red light, stood empty facing almost a hundred pair of eager ears sitting shoulder to shoulder. As Andrew Bird's frail frame strolled to stage, the normally raucous upstairs fell to a rare subdued hush.
Chicago-born Andrew Bird has braided his classical background, innate feel for the violin and singer/songwriter nature into an international career for the past eight years, turning out a handful of CDs, sold-out shows and radio appearances, including NPR's "World Cafe." His past albums run the gamut of folk, jazz, country blues and emotional rock, and draw comparisons to Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley; his latest endeavor, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, now two months old, drips with melancholy tones and uber-intelligent lyrics. The Gil's crowd on Saturday couldn't get enough.
Bird's blue-grey suit crinkles at the sleeves as he tucks his violin under his chin, and allows just enough movement to pluck and prod the strings for the first song. With a hint of far-eastern influence, each push and pull of the bow draws onlookers further onto the edge of their chair, balancing on the intersection of his thick notes and their trance-like attention. His smooth vocals match his violin play perfectly. He loops layers of subtle strings, haunting lyrics and precision whistling to produce a blanket of rock-meets-classical-meets-blues homegrown music that has earned him the respect of such notables as Ani DiFranco and My Morning Jacket.
The subtle nuances of his stage presence-endearing humor, playful banter with the crowd and uncoordinated gestures-suggest he has perfected an ultra-refined act, or that he simply exudes the aura of a true performer; the standing ovation Bird received a dozen songs later as he strolled off stage points to the latter. His instrumental abilities, from acoustic guitar to glockenspiel to violin to vibrato whistling, mirror his songwriting talent: both are limitless.
"Unique," in the context of contemporary songwriters, is a term that seems to have lost meaning from too many false applications. Bird's performance breaths life back into the label, and simultaneously shatters the mold of originality.
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