It’s not easy to get a sweaty, tightly-packed crowd of New Yorkers clapping and stomping on a 90+-degree day. Armed with a violin and an acoustic band at Central Park’s SummerStage, Andrew Bird did just that.

Bird has been ubiquitous as of late: he debuted a 7-song EP in late 2013 that birthed a new fan favorite, “Pulaski at Night” (featured on Season 2 of Orange is The New Black), and he just released a covers album of songs by husband-and-wife duo The Handsome Family last month. Check #andrewbird on Instagram and you’ll find countless phone screenshots of people listening to Bird’s new material. Clearly, the instrumentalist, singer, and expert whistler is having a good year.

Thousands of fans cheerfully ignored the sticky heat and gathered for Bird’s free show–his first ever SummerStage appearance. He walked on stage alone wearing a sharp but totally seasonally-inappropriate jacket that he promptly took off after one song. Ever the well-dressed performer, Bird wryly advised the crowd: “I’m wearing sandals up here, and it’s a slippery slope until I’m wearing shorts on stage.”

The folkster played the set’s first three songs by himself, looping live violin, guitar, and glockenspiel(!) tracks and singing “Hole in the Ocean Floor” and “Plasticities” over the instrumentation. Watching Bird deftly pick up multiple instruments and build the songs’ intricate layers is akin to seeing a craftsman create a shiny, polished product. From the complex arrangements to the notes in his whistling solos, his precision is enthralling–especially at sunset on a summer evening in Central Park.

The tone of the show instantly shifted from summer-night-pretty to summer-night-barn party when Bird welcomed his band The Hands of Glory to the stage. It’s clear that Bird’s muses of the moment are The Handsome Family, who he referred to as his “favorite living songwriters.” His covers of their material from his new album Things are Really Great Here, Sort Of…dominated the set in ultra-Americana fashion. Pedal steel? Check. Upright bass? Yep. Lyrics woven of rich storytelling? Indeed.

Bird’s Handsome Family fixation isn’t a total departure from his folky roots, but playing the duo’s material is an interesting direction for him–one that proved to suit his (and the Hands of Glory’s) talents. Guitarist and singer Tift Merritt, Bird’s frequent collaborator, got some of the loudest applause of the night when she occasionally belted out verses in her classic country voice between harmonies with Bird. Midway through the set, Bird and the Hands of Glory gathered around one microphone and stayed there for old-timey renditions on some of his original material, like “Give It Away” from 2012’s Break It Yourself. “Railroad Bill,” a super-rustic highlight of the set, prompted a lot of seriously enthusiastic square dancing inside the park.

After the crowd-around-the-microphone formation dispersed, Bird and co. temporarily put their honky-tonk fun aside and made their way to some of the most anticipated songs of the night: “Three White Horses,” “Pulaski at Night,” and the gorgeously island-inspired “Danse Caribe.” At this point of the evening, the sweltering heat had been replaced by a breeze that perfectly coincided with Bird’s most poignant songs. The “Pulaski” to “Danse” transition was a particularly lovely point of the show: Bird and the Hands of Glory first summoned an overwhelming feeling of yearning, then joy. Amidst the fireflies and rustling leaves, many people listened to the songs with their eyes closed. “Danse” felt like a natural ending point with its whistle-and-violin crescendo, but the band played on. They finished the set with a bold version of “Tables and Chairs” so rambunctious that it seemed to take the audience by surprise.

The band returned for a three-song encore that built quietly from “MX Missiles” to “Cathedral in the Dell,” a melancholy Handsome Family tune that lent itself to spooky harmonies between Bird and Merritt. The finale, “Don’t Be Scared,” sounded at first like a lullaby sendoff until it grew into another loudly dramatic closer. Part warning and part comforting advice, it made for a fitting way to part with the crowd as the wind picked up and thunder rumbled in the distance.

Setlist for Andrew Bird @ SummerStage | 7/8/14

Hole in the Ocean Floor
Dyin’ Bed
Tin Foiled
Dear Old Greenland
Frogs Singing
Give It Away
When That Helicopter Comes
Something Biblical
Railroad Bill
Near Death Experience Experience
Three White Horses
Pulaski at Night
Danse Caribe
Drunk By Noon
Tables and Chairs


MX Missiles
Cathedral in the Dell
Don’t Be Scared