On stage, Andrew Bird is deadpan, impassive. He introduces his songs, fits a violin under his chin or leans into the microphone to sing, and hardly looks up.

But that's just at first. Because in no time his left leg's shaking, a smile is threatening to erupt and before long his head's tossed back in rapture.

Imagine this for a moment: Lou Reed meets Edward Gorey to sing original music styled after the 1920s and '30s. If you can picture that on the body of a slightly embarrassed, good-looking 23-year-old from Evanston, you might get an idea about Bird.

``I've now focused on a period of music that's pre-World War II, whether it be Swing or Latin or gypsy -- anything you were inclined to hear at that time that's leisure music, that's what I've arrived at after a long period of wandering,'' he says. ``That's where I go now, where there's the most pure expression of musicality.''

Right now, though, Bird goes along with three bands: The Squirrel Nut Zippers, charlie nobody and the more recent Bowl of Fire. In fact, charlie nobody and Bowl of Fire are the same ensemble but with a twist.

``Bowl of Fire is my thing; charlie nobody is a democracy,'' he says. ``I just get down on everybody for Bowl of Fire, where the music can be very subtle -- I'm just a tyrant in rehearsal. Charlie nobody's more of a rocking thing, less tethered, less reined in.''

In any case, what you get with Bird on stage is a combo of fiery violin and witty vocalizing. He's still a tad too young to pull off the dapper neo-Gatsby persona he affects on stage, but give him a few years. His rich tenor's got a slyness, a sexy undertone that'll only get better with age, too.

The young musician, who's been at it since age 4, is the product of a decade's worth of Suzuki and a degree in music from Northwestern. But don't let that get in the way: Bird's playing is more emotional than anything else, his nerves jangling right along with the change in his pocket.

"I've started to realize I've been too focused, too reliant on the violin, to an unhealthy extent," he says. "I've always been able to win people over with my playing but I want to be a little more well-rounded. With these bands, especially Bowl of Fire, I'm becoming less of a player. I want to write, arrange, too."

His originals -- jazzy tunes that harken to some future past where Prohibition and the Internet might co-exist -- are dark little ditties populated by characters and emotions that both Reed and Gorey could love.

"Yeah, I don't know what that's about, they're dark but jubilant songs," he admits. "I'm into the peculiarities of how some cultures express joy. For instance, we do this Swedish wedding march, which is about the saddest thing you've ever heard. Then you go down south into the Caribbean and Latin America and there seems to be a different approach: their funeral marches are often times jubilant. In the tunes that I write, I try to play with that kind of juxtaposition."

Mission accomplished: The songs are wryly funny, filled with lyrics about, among other things, bones left by the river, and heartache.

"Just look at `Pathetique' (a song from his CD, "The Music of Hair") -- it's an utterly, pathetically romantic piece of poetry, where the sentiment is gushing and hurting," he says about the song that inspired his approach. "Its quintessential expression is morbid. The lyrics don't change, but as it goes along it gets even more pathetic, then right in the middle of the tune, it switches into this bright, Hawaiian swing and you hear all this ukelele sunny day stuff."

Bird does "Pathetique" quite nicely, even while trying to suppress a little kid smile.

"What I like to do with singing is to sing with a big open voice," he says, laughing now. "Pre-World War II, everybody sang with this big Italian open voice, and that's kind of lost."

These days, Bird's cultivating a career between here and New Orleans, where he just got back from recording yet another album with Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a man he calls his musical soulmate.

"We went shopping for musicians right on the street in New Orleans," he says. "We just picked them up, took them to the studio, recorded them, paid them. New Orleans does it for me right now. There are so many musicians there doing music without the ambitions of wrapping it up and putting it on the road. It's great."

May 30, 10 p.m.: charlie nobody, Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln. 773-549-5549.

June 6, 10 p.m.: Bowl of Fire, Schuba's, 3159 N. Southport. 773-525-2508.

Obejas is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.