Musician Andrew Bird’s Gezelligheid concerts became a beloved holiday tradition in Chicago after their 2009 debut. But when the pandemic hit, the shows were moved to a livestream format. This year, the annual residency at Fourth Presbyterian Church has returned with a seven-night run that brings Bird back to his hometown.
We spoke with the multi-instrumentalist about what it’s like to revive the residency after its hiatus, what it feels like to experience a Chicago winter, and where he likes to visit when he returns to the city.
These shows have always been about a cozy, communal experience. Did that take on new meaning after the social isolation during the pandemic?
The last show was 2019. I was doing Fargo and they gave me a break from my shooting schedule to be able to do a few of these. Right after that the pandemic hit. After a run of live stream concerts — which are little less than gratifying and kind of antithetical to what Gezelligheid is all about — it’s nice to just be in a room with people.
I noticed when I went to Scandinavian countries that they really made the most of the darkness and the cold with atmosphere, like warm lighting. I was in Amsterdam and it was sleeting sideways, and I come into this bar and it’s crowded and there are candles and everything. This woman sits down at the bar next to me and says, oh, gezelligheid. I think she meant that it was pretty crowded. It’s tight, It’s cozy. I asked, what is gezelligheid? She said it’s a Dutch word that doesn’t have any translation, but basically means cozy.
Chicago has seen its fair share of sleeting sideways days. What is it like for you to bring this concept of coziness, or that sort of crowded feeling, that sense of warmth to a city like Chicago where the winters can feel like they last forever?
You gotta be creative to get through it. And despite the seasonal depression, it’s just a reality that you have to make a real huge effort. And sometimes that effort creates something new. So the idea of these shows was to kind of lean heavily on that atmosphere. Originally, I thought it would be mostly instrumental, or at least less of a focus on me as a persona on stage, and more of an experience where the sound just sort of washes over you instead of being laser focused on the stage energy. I’ve got these big spinning horns and we put a lot into the way it’s lit. The church does a lot of the work for you, ambiance-wise.
Anything in particular about the shows this year that you’re excited about?
I hadn’t done a Gezelligheid since I put out Hark!, which is my holiday record, other than on the live streams. I’m getting ready to make a jazz album, so every night we’re doing a different classic tune.
Alan Hampton, my bass player, is with me. I never do a full band because that would sound terrible in church. It’s more about the linear sounds. It’s a nice change from the high-energy rock show because I can hear all the nuances of what I’m playing, and it’s about the sort of subtle interactions with the bass and the guitar.
You played at the Salt Shed this summer, which is a totally different type of venue at a totally different time of season in the city. Does seasonality play a role in how you’re playing?
For sure. When I lived in Chicago for 36 years, you’d kind of creatively hibernate and come out in the spring with something you created while you were hunkered down. And so when I come back to Chicago these days, there’s almost a more studied feeling.
Like when I came for Fargo, I was here for months and months and I went to this old cheap music store. I don’t really play classical music and I haven’t read music for 25 years, but I went and got this Beethoven violin concerto and these old warhorse concertos I used to play when I was a teenager and I would practice these incredibly beautiful but difficult pieces every day.
It’s a monk-like existence, because life in the winter has this more ascetic, monastic sort of feeling to it. When I’m in where I live now, and I love it, because I’m outside all year round, and I’m riding my bike, but I don’t have that kind of monastic feeling that I get when I come back to Chicago.
Now that you are back in town, do you have any holiday traditions that you’d like to hit while you’re here?
It’s just nostalgic where I am right now, which is near where my grandparents used to live in Streeterville. I would come down in high school and stay with them while I went to the Youth Symphony in the Fine Arts Building. This area is not where I would hang out when I was in my 20s and 30s, but it’s kind of nostalgic for much earlier formative years. So just walking around those old neighborhoods downtown and going to the Fine Arts Building — there’s a great bookstore, and they’ve got that sheet music store — I just love the atmosphere of that building. And hearing people rehearsing and ballet classes and everything is just so old school and Great. I still remember meeting Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, I must have been like 6 or 7 years old in that auditorium in the Fine Arts Building.