“Gezelligheid” is a Dutch word for a feeling of coziness, a sense of loving belonging. Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird has adopted it as the name of his annual hometown performance series—a rare opportunity to see the Chicago expat in an intimate setting. The low lighting in the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chestnut, where he’s held the shows for several years now, exudes an inviting warmth that blankets the tightly packed pews, which suddenly feel very far from the cold outside. The show I attended on Wednesday was like visiting family, and not just due to the uncomfortable proximity of other fans—the air buzzed with friendly conversation, and excited energy hovered above the well-dressed audience. Gezelligheid has grown into a special event all its own, a sold-out affair in an opulent but still welcoming hall.
Opener Joan Shelley played lulling, tender folk music, her voice seeming especially quiet and unassuming in such a spectacular space. She was accompanied by Nathan Salsburg, a fellow resident of Louisville, Kentucky, who lent his fluid guitar to her recent self-titled album. The duo’s sleepy, bluegrass-tinged folk was an unexpected comfort, recalling Emmylou and Gram’s gentler moments. Between songs, Shelley stayed hushed, seeming almost shy—while the crowd applauded, she looked down and blushed, and she kept her banter to a muted minimum.
When Bird took his turn onstage, he was like an eccentrically shaped puzzle piece fitting snugly into a background so idiosyncratic that almost anyone else would’ve looked out of place. Flanked with Seussian, Victrola-like speaker horns, designed by Ian Schneller of Chicago’s Specimen Products, he seemed to be presiding over a Wes Anderson-directed Grand Ole Opry. He mumbled rambling, funny stories to a (mostly) silent audience. In a big church. Surrounded by spinning horns and Christmas decorations. It was quaint, but quaintness defines Bird’s oeuvre—the multi-instrumentalist’s practiced blend of baroque pop and alt-country is comfortable and familiar in its affectations.
Bird’s Gezelligheid performance found a balance between the luxurious, almost orchestral sound of his digitally layered violin and the old-fashioned down-home approach of three musicians sharing one microphone—an unpretentiousness that separated it from its ornate surroundings. The show felt friendly and private, even from 20 rows back, like an antique on display for the holidays. Bird and the talented troubadours supporting him offered magnificently stripped-down renditions of works from across his sizable repertoire, including a stirring performance of “When the World’s on Fire,” a religious folk song most famous in its Carter Family version. When Shelley joined them onstage for an encore, the feeling of gezelligheid reached its peak—a beautiful contentment like a reunion of old friends.
Photographer Ben Bowen was on hand to shoot Wednesday’s show. Bird performs again tonight at Fourth Presbyterian with Shelley, then Friday at the Hideout with My Brightest Diamond.