in performance: george winston/andrew bird

George Winston. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

If the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour succeeds in nothing as it edges closer to its 1000th broadcast this fall, it has produced what will likely be the year’s most improbable but engaging double bill. On Monday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the weekly live music show offered a program divided equally between Grammy winning solo pianist George Winston and indie-rock songsmith Andrew Bird – two artists that navigate seemingly disparate musical trajectories.

Winston’s reputation extends back to his early ‘80s albums for Windham Hill and the blanket genre tag of New Age. Now at 70, the Winston of today hasn’t changed much – certainly not in the influences he relishes. The perception of his musicianship, though, has evolved dramatically. If your introduction to Winston’s playing was his set opening performance of “Pixie,” then your resulting estimation of his playing wasn’t that of some stereotypically plaintive instrumentalist, an unfairly misleading tag that has dogged much of the original Windham Hall roster, but rather that of a schooled musicologist. Embracing the jovial stride of New Orleans piano pioneer James Booker, Winston tackled the tune’s rich harmonics, especially within its rampant boogie woogie-esque strolls, through an exhibition of stoic stamina. The tempo never strayed, but neither did the music’s unrelenting rhythm and drive.

Winston was born in Michigan, grew up in Montana, studied in Florida and has long resided in California yet his WoodSongs set suggested none of those regions. In honoring another longstanding inspiration, jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, Winston headed back to New Orleans. On “It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown,” his playing adhered to a sunny, sweet lyricism that retained Guaraldi’s animated spirit but still rocked with a Southern buoyancy that echoed the Booker piece

For balance, Winston turned to a pair of immortal hits popularized by pop-soul maestro Sam Cooke – “A Change is Gonna Come” and “You Send Me.” The former, the only tune featured from Winston’s new “Restless Wind” album (a record he seemed almost hesitant to promote), the pianist stayed in the South, enhancing the song’s gospel foundation with leisurely, efficient grace. The latter placed Winston on seven string acoustic guitar and an arrangement that essentially detuned the song’s melody for a brittle, music box charm that borrowed generously from the Hawaiian slack key sound he has long championed.

Andrew Bird. Photo by Amanda Demme.

Bird’s set flipped the proverbial coin altogether for a quartet of works from his fine, immodestly titled new album “My Finest Work Yet.” Operating with his full five- member band, but in an exclusively acoustic setting, Bird emerged as a pop stylist of an indeterminate era. The opening “Sisyphus,” for example, mirrored a tempered but topical narrative colored by one of Bird’s two trademark musical voices – his own whistling.

But it was “Bloodless,” which sent the song stylist to violin for the rest of the program, that cut to the heart of Bird’s long-distinctive sound as well as the core of the new album’s contemporary perspective. Through subtle use of looping, he conjured the effect of a string quartet that played off the piano colors of pianist Tyler Chester and Bird’s long (and longing-filled) lines on violin. The groove all this played against mirrored a sense jazz and blues-informed cool that was a marked contrast to the song’s storyline of political fearmongering (“They are profiting from your worry”).

“Olympians” and an encore version of “Manifest” further underscored the strengths of Bird and his band. These shifted from the bandleader’s clean and, at times, booming vocal leads to the efficient harmonies he created with guitarist Madison Cunningham and bassist Alan Hampton around a single microphone.

The worlds of these two stylists remained separate, though, during the program. Outside of a brief instance when Bird nodded in appreciation as he sat behind Winston during the relentless piano rolls of “Pixie,” there was no interaction. The universes they traveled proved fascinating, but their passages were clearly booked separately.



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