Review: Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub @ Bowery Ballroom

Is it standard to write a brief apology when writing one of these blogs after a long absence? Well, I’ve been moving, so I apologize, my life has been in and out of boxes.  But I have left the cultural capital of the known universe (Jersey City) for a bit, and now reside in Clinton Hill Brooklyn.  Anyway, lets get to business.

Lanois 1

Daniel Lanois confuses me at times.  There is not much debate that he is one of the most significant producers of the last 20 years- He’s partially responsible for U2’s most memorable work and Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, that’s enough for me to buy anyone a sandwich.  His sound on record is instantly recognizable.  It’s as if you took only the good parts of 1980’s production, matched it with a gritty guitar sound, add some New Orleans style drumming, and put lots of delay on everything.  I would say he has created one of the great American sounds, but he’s Canadian.

Now it may be just me, but his solo work seems a tad self indulgent as of late.  While I am a junky for any documentary style film about studio recording, his film “Here Is What Is”, a companion film to the album of the same name, definitely included some parts that were like “Oh Hey, here I am, and this is why I’m awesome, and I hang out with Billy Bob Thorton”.  Don’t get me wrong, the album has a few great tracks, and the production is amazing, but it seemed to just be an experiment of him making sounds for the sake of sounds.  Now, is there anything wrong with that?  Not really…but I still feel torn about it.  His aim does in fact seem true, he hires great musicians, is mindful of the vibe of the whole album, does not use any digital workstation trickery…but there is something that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Last week was a prime example.  My sister and I went to see Lanois new band Black Dub at the Bowery Ballroom.  The main draw, in addition to Lanois himself, was Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is a straight up monster, and there is not one person alive who could argue this.  He has some magical power behind the kit, no note ever seems excessive, any beat he plays just makes you smile.  The entire front row was made up of drummers just trying to get a look at Blade.  More on him later.  The band was fronted, and kind of seems like a Lanois inspired vehicle for, Trixie Whitley- a young vocalist, who’s basically a model.  This is where it gets weird and confusing.

Lanois 2

Have you ever heard that old story of how some oil tycoon in the 1930’s rented out Carniege Hall so his wife could play piano there or something?  I think this is kind of like that.  Whitley is a capable singer…but is she worthy of a band of the finest studio musicians in the world and a tour to support it?  I’m gonna come out and say no.  She sounds like one of those girls you hear playing a set at Kennys Castaways who has an overly put on, immitation soul voice, singing an octave below her natural range trying not to sound like the tiny white girl she is.  I felt betrayed slightly.  She sounded kind of like a Christina Aguilera immitator, and looked like Taylor Swift.  Really Lanois?

Brian Blade...in the shadows
Brian Blade...in the shadows

On the stage were 2 drum kits, a keyboard, giant bass rig, pedal steel and guitar amp.  Lanois played one beautiful guitar the whole night, just one delay effect on it.  Blade had his drum kit, the bassist (whose name ecsapes me but was fantastic) also kept it simple…..Trixie had her own drum kit, which she futzed about with for a few songs, a keyboard which she played one song on and was barely audible, and a badass black Les Paul, which she played for one song, and only plucked a few notes.   Again Lanois, really??  First off, you have Brian Blade up there.  The only other drummer who has added something while playing with him, is Jim Keltner on Time Out of Mind, thats because he’s one of the greatest drummers of all time.  But this girl who can barely play?  WTF man.  To his credit, Blade took it like a champ, I don’t think its possible for him to sound bad.  Any time she got on the kit, he just kept straight ahead time, throwing in a simple accent fill when necessary, he’s like Bacon, he makes anything better.

Lanois Steel

But there was really no need for her to have a drum kit, or guitar, or keyboard.  Focus on someones strengths, which in her case i think were backing vocals, when Lanois took the lead on his hit “The Maker”.  Not awkwardly trying to play guitar, drums, or keys, it just took away from whatever she had.  The thing is….LANOIS HAS TO KNOW THIS!  He produced Achtung Baby!  And Time Out Of Mind!  COME ON MAN!  I really dont want to say it…he has to just want to bang her, or has to be banging her, something in that realm.  You know how when two people are talking, and one clearly likes the other, and the other clearly does not like that person back, and its kinda painful to watch?  This seemed a little like that.  Lanois would move his mic stand towards her, she would kind of just stand in the same place.  He’d hug her and shit between songs, it just seemed a little weird. During the encore, they finished their song, the plan seemed to be for Lanois to finish the show solo with guitar, and he was like “you wanna sing one more with me?”  and shes all “nah, you finish this one, do your thing”.  That seemed the equivelant of, “you wanna go get a drink after dinner?”  “Nah I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I need to be up early, I’m just gonna head home”  Tough break Lanois, Tough Break.

I guess he’ll just have to take solace in his millions of dollars, incredible talent as a producer and musician, and worldwide acclaim.  It must be a tough life.

Now my dilemma only continued a few days after the show when I spoke to my sister to ask her opinion.  She enthusiastically loved the show.  Now, we both loved the band, but she enjoyed the vocalist far more than I did.  Im pretty confused right now, and Im questioning all I believe is right and holy.  Maybe I’m being too harsh on Trixie, maybe in any other context I would have enjoyed her performance.  But when someone is presented to you with such a powerful band, I feel its accurate to raise your expectations.  And that is the story I am sticking to.

In Defense Of Mono

This weekend I was at a friends birthday party, enjoying some food and beverage in lovely Jersey City.  Things were progressing normally, TV sporting event on part of the time, Computer playing iTunes at others.  At the end of the evening, when the location was about to change, someone turned on some Velvet Underground.  I’m not going to go into some hipster rant about Lou Reed or the positives and negatives of Nico, this isn’t even about a particular band….wait, one quick side note.  I once had a Velvet Underground CD which perished in a spectacular car fire.  But there is no time for that now, I have a point here.  I turned to someone and said “is this coming from an AM radio? That’s fucking awesome!”  In fact, it was coming from one of those little ipod dock type of things, with one small speaker.  Pure mp3 sound, made fantastic by the context.  Had this been playing through much larger and more expensive speakers, the effect would have been not nearly as intense.

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I read an interview with Paul McCartney once, who was asked what he thought about Mp3’s and quality issues.  He responded with something like “well, you know mate, before I was a billionaire, in our early days we used to take the little battery powered radio to the beach and turn on the old AM to hear the latest hits, before I was the one writing them because I’m awesome, and we had a jolly old time, with just that one tiny speaker, before i was bathing in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck!  So what really matters is the song!”    Quote me on it, those are his exact words, with possibly a few more ego maniacal rants thrown in.  But Sir Mrs John Lennon has a point there.  Maybe there are even those among us who recall listening to a cassette walkman, cranking out the hits in lofi questionable speed control tapes, getting all we could from the song.  Bob Dylan made that amazing and relevant statement not too long ago that everything recorded recently sounds like garbage.  It kinda does, with a few notable exceptions which we do not have time to discuss in this post, but lets say T Bone Burnett is producing most of them.  So what if we make a drastic move to bring things back into perspective.  Ready?  Lets get rid of the 2nd speaker.

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Ringo, probably trying to steal emerick's grammy.

In Geoff Emerick’s fantastic book “Here There and Everywhere” he discusses his philosophy on mono in the days of early stereo.  Emerick was The Beatles engineer for the majority of their career.  He created most of the sounds everyone has tried to emulate since.  George Martin was a bitch, this kid was the brains of the operation.  But an interesting point he made, is that stereo was pretty much a joke when it came out.  They would do silly panning effects just because they could, nothing to further the strength of the song, they would just mess around.  If you feel like dropping several hundred dollars on these new Beatles reissue box sets, just listen to the mono recordings and there is no comparison.  In fact, I encourage you to choose your friends based on which box set they would go for, mono or stereo.  If we can consistently learn anything from The Beatles, its that limitations of technology can enhance creativity.  Those kids had 4 tracks, and mono.  Look what they came up with.  If they had a pro tools rig and surround sound, Idon’t think the albums would have been as good, and I don’t think many people would disagree.

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For the greatest of all Wintertine Jewish Octetular Present Presentations…Hannukkah, I got an Tivoli Model One Radio.  Its a small, well designed box, featuring one 3.5 inch speaker.  With all this hi-fi hubub going on recently, I felt the need to give 1 speaker a chance.  There is an intimacy in mono that you just don’t get from some giant hifi system.  I think the first night i plugged it in, Little Feat’s “Willin” came on a WFUV show very late, and it heightened the experience.  It also has one huge tuning knob, no digital anything, and a 1/8″ input, should you choose to put a turntable or ipod through it, which I do intend to do.  Obviously I feel conflicted about playing some mp3’s through a well designed analog box, but we are children of technology, so lets just selectively embrace it, ok?

For about 2 years I would only record drum overheads using one mic.  I heard somewhere that all of the Rolling Stones “Some Girls” album was recorded with only one overhead, a kick and snare mic, reinforced with a PA system. That’s how it should be done.  KISS Method, not Gene Simmons.  Why has this trend not come back into fashion?  Why does no one release mono LPs or something anymore?  Can’t we start a hipster trend in the depths of bushwick, and take away every home studio’s left speaker?  Lets start a crusade.

The Bad Plus @ The Village Vanguard

New Years Eve.  Its the one holiday that I completely understand.  Once you start mixing religion into things, it just gets confusing, so lets keep it secular around these blog related parts.  We have all agreed to observe the same calendar, so lets all have a party when it turns over, world wide, time zone abiding.  Its a recurring opportunity for disappointment, when the whole world is counting on you to get out there and tear it up.  But the older we get, the less that seems to matter, so once my Quarter Century had passed, I don’t feel I need to bear that burden anymore.  This year, it was time to get some work done.
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As mentioned in my previous post, I was on the crew for the NPR Toast Of The Nation Broadcast.  The producer of the show mentioned that he had seen this here blog and referred to me as “Bilbo Bloggins”, thanks Josh, I feel good about that.  There were a few shows broadcast throughout the country, but the New York Crew was in charge of The Bad Plus at The Village Vanguard.  One of my favorite bands at one of my favorite venues, it was win win.  Since there is always the likelihood that you will have to work while at work, I made reservations earlier in the week to see The Bad Plus at the Vanguard, just to relax and see the show.  My previous experiences with this band at this venue have always been fantastic.  Exactly one year ago, they played a stellar version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” which completely blew my mind, followed by an encore of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” which I would bet is the only time that particular song has been played at that particular venue by any band at any time.  I also witnessed owner Loraine Gordon completely put an obnoxious tourist in his place for complaining about the line outside, which was one of my favorite New York moments of all time.

What Jazz Group Has A Press Photo Like This?
What Jazz Group Has A Press Photo Like This?

But that was then, this is now.  And the Bad Plus is a “Now” band.  They are most widely known for their interpretations of cover songs, everything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” to Wilco’s “Radio Cure” but they go far beyond a novelty act.  I feel like they are the leaders of a very small number of jazz artists actually doing interesting and relevant things, rather than just repeating the past.  I’m sure they could play every standard known to every professor at Berklee School Of Music, but they don’t seem to be interested in doing that.  Covers aside, listening to their original material, you feel yourself being pulled forward into new territory.  There is all sorts of rock influence in the backbeats drummer Dave King throws in, Reid Anderson’s  rhythmic and melodic basslines always remind me of Motown meets Led Zeppelin, and Ethan Iverson is pretty much the Eddie Van Halen of Jazz Piano.  They must have some type of telepathy with the way they change time signatures and tempos on a dime, they never seem lost.  Go youtube some Bad Plus and you will agree with me.  That is a statement, not a suggestion.

Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson

So we settled in on the opening night of their week long run to see some craziness.  Was I surprised they delivered?  No I was not.  Was I 3% disappointed we did not hear any covers?  Yes, I might have been.  But the musical virtuosity more than made up for it.  Reid Anderson took the prize for the night, with some innovative bass solos, never lacking melody.  I think the fact that he uses a kick ass bass amp in addition to being miked (something i have not always seen at the vanguard) gives him a little push, but I’m just as sure he’d be fine without it.  I saw Iverson and Anderson with drummer Paul Motian there not too long ago, and it was the same situation, the bass really made the whole night.  King on the drums just went nuts.  You could spot the drummers in the house, who would all give a little laugh every time he pulled some crazy shenanigans.  King laughs along with the crowd, which I always find reassuring, I always respect a musician who doesn’t take themselves to seriously.  So it was a short hour long early set on a tuesday night, I left feeling good and ready for more on Thursday.

Dave King
Dave King

My plan to stay up all night on Dec 30th in preparation, fell through when Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings sold out Brooklyn Bowl, preventing me from having anything exciting to do, so I went to bed at a reasonable hour, woke up, made some Cheese Grits (take that Matt Shampine, Iblogwhatieat too!) and headed to the venue.  At their soundcheck, King introduced a new tune, and the band learned it well enough to play it that night.  Lets just say, it solidified the fact that I will not likely be a jazz musician.  I’m going to think of that next time I’m in a musical situation where someone cannot pick up a 4 chord progression. (that someone might be me, I’m just puttin it out there)  We had a good low key dinner with the band and crew, and returned, ready to tear it up, in a slight food coma.  At this point, The Bad Plus did something that will make them forever hold a special place in my heart:  They got us Magnolia Cupcakes.

Magnolia Cupcakes
Magnolia Cupcakes

Now let me explain.  No disrespect to Matt Shampine’s list of cupcake supremacy, but Magnolia fucking rocks, I don’t care what you say.  Dessert is such an essential part of a meal, its like the roof on a house.  Calls were even placed while at the dinner table to see if Magnolia would still be open.  Any band that is down with this concept, is a band I can respect both on and off stage.  Beyond that, an essential professional rule I learned early on, is to always make sure the crew is fed.  They actually taught us this in college.  A film professor once mentioned, if you feed your crew well, they will work harder, and in the long run it will save you far more money than you would save by not feeding the crew.  I have had one boss who did not believe in feeding his crew, and for that I wish many bad things upon him,  such as fishes and other items in his piano, but lets move on.

The crowd band and crew all seemed in good spirits upon returning to the venue.  This was definitely the “loosest” I’ve ever seen this band on stage.  I dont mean musically, but more in terms stage presence.  They discussed which songs to play for a bit, made some jokes to the crowd, everyone was feeling good.  The production assistant and myself were perched in the best seat in the house, recording the first set.  Things moved along well, no standout musical moments come to mind, everything just seemed to be working.

Anderson and King
Anderson and King

The live broadcast was for the entire 2nd set, which started at 11.  By this time, the crowd had a fair amount of alcohol in them, and its never fun to be sober around a bunch of drunks, I find myself easily irritated.  But in this case, everything was kosher, I was hanging out next to a serious band, just kickin it with a bunch of mic pre-amps, settled in for the night.  It seemed as soon as we went on air and the host did the band intro, they just kicked it into high gear.  Especially Dave King, he just went completely nuts from the first tune of the set.  Even Iverson commented “Nice Drum Solo!” between songs, he was clearly feeling it.  Sitting maybe 2 feet from him, I was especially psyched to watch what was happening.  It gave me some new insights into the way they play, especially watching his bass drum foot.  I can’t explain it, because I am not that technical of a musician, but the way they keep time made more sense after being able to see the bass drum pedal.  Anyhoo, they were on fire.

The actual countdown to midnight was on time and went well, the house was alive, everyone feeling good.  I might have been the only new years eve when I did not actually acknowledge the fact that the calendar had just turned over, I was keeping an eye on that recording gear!  This brings me to my next point.   I got to be on stage with the bad plus.  “WHY?” you ask?  “You sat in because you are totally awesome!?”  No dear reader, no.  Although please rest assured of my awesome-ness.  At 12:13, the recording gear went dead.  The power off, the lights dimmed.  I did not want to crawl behind the narrow passage between the rack of gear and the drums, but that shit was live, and dead air was happening.  The power supply fell out of the outlet during the soundcheck, we re-secured it and everything was cool, but apparently it happened again….although when i was at the back of the stage near the power, everything seemed to be plugged in.  I have no idea what happened.  By the time the gear had been turned on, there was a sync error with the master clock….you wanna talk Digital Audio?  I didn’t think so.  That being said, we lost 2 minutes of the broadcast, the important part happened.  That shit is stressful man, 2 minutes feels like an eternity in that situation.  I was using my phone as a light to make sure everything was plugged in, and it kept vibrating with “Happy New Yrr!” text messages, from people far drunker than I, and it was getting slightly irritating.  By that time, the set was nearly over, and our work was done.  I think we all felt a little defeated, but it was nearly 1am, and there are worse things in the world.

Loading out of a venue is never fun, but on new years eve, when there is evil ungodly freezing slush raining from the skye, and everyone on the street is at the tail end of their wildly intoxicated evening, things are certainly interesting.  I had entertained plans of gallivanting well into the wee hours of the morning, but at 2:00am, there is nothing on earth I wanted more than to be at home.  I would have battled a wild rhino to get chicken sandwich at that hour, but alas, nothing was open.  So, I rung in 2010 back at the house, with some chocolate covered raisins after a night of great music and technical snafu’s.  If thats anything indicative of the year to come, bring on the music and the drama.

The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus Review: Tom Waits On Screen

Yes, I am aware its called I Blog What I Hear, but I see things as well as hear them, so this is going to blur the party line a bit, ok?  Jesus, relax already.  Christmas is an interesting time for those of us in the Jewish faith, “The Chosen People” as some call it.  There is NOTHING to do.  I don’t know how to express this is any other way.  Imagine going out, and EVERYTHING is closed.  You can’t get food, other than Chinese, you can’t buy anything, trains are empty, everything is just plain quiet.  Its an eerie feeling.  I greatly dislike it, and it has always been this way.

As is the tradition, I woke up Christmas Day with nothing to do, and decided this is the year to go with tradition.  This is the year, not to break the mold, but to fit into it!  Ladies and Gentlemen, I saw a movie.  After calling every person I could imagine would not be involved in family shenanigans, it was determined that I would be braving the streets solo.  I’ve only seen one other solo movie in my life, this was while living in LA.  I drove to a sketchy part of downtown, to a weird looking mildly abandoned theater to see the Moog Movie.  I was one of 3 people in the theater, and it was fantastic.  IF you have never seen this movie, netflix that up.  Bob Moog truly believed in what he did, and made an interesting spiritual connection with the electronic instruments he built.  Anyway, this was an overall positive experience, So I was ready for round 2.  So on Christmas Day, I braved the rain and disgusting slush, and went to see The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus.

Much mythology has surrounded Parnassus long before it was ever released.  This was Heath Ledger’s last film, he died halfway though the filming.  With nowhere else to go, and the money quickly running in the other direction, director Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame)  called upon his friends Johnny Depp, Collin Farrell, and Jude Law to fill in for the role, with only minor rewrites.  But all this is just Hollywood trivia.  What I was concerned with was the role of The Devil.  Not A Devil….The Devil.  Played by none other than Tom Waits.  Up until now, Waits has had a few minor film roles.  He played Renfield in Braham Stoker’s Dracula, Had a walk on in The Fisher King, another cameo in Wristcutters, and probably a few others, what am I, IMDB?  But this is by far his most significant.
EXCLUSIVE:  Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Still Shooting
The first thing I noticed about this film was Gilliams Python style animation.  It was the soft focus style of drawing (think the giant foot in Holy Grail) that most defined his signature style.  His films have a unifying look as well.  He does this one camera move in every film.  Its kind of like a shakey wrap around shot, he uses it in the hotel check in scene of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (one of the greatest films ever made) as well as all over 12 Monkeys.  Visually, Gilliam never fails to disappoint.  Its no Baron Munchausen (one of the other greatest films ever created) but it certainly is exciting to look at.  His fantasy sequences have the look of the greatest and most psychedelic school play you could ever imagine.  The sets are incredibly detailed and real.  My least favorite thing about the films of the last 10 years is the heavy reliance on CG.  Gilliam embraces this, yet details the sets with enough actual substance to fully bring you in, rather than just admire some shit done with computers.

But you don’t come here to listen to that type of talk, no.  We all knew this post would really be about the greatest man to grace the earth and beyond, Tom Waits.  Now, my undying love for Waits aside, he OWNS this role.  There was no better choice for the mythical devil role, named Mr. Nick,  than Tom Waits.  Every step is a little dance, he puts soul into every word.  Every scene he acts in is like hearing a spoken word Waits piece.  Have you heard “What’s He Building In There?”  off Mule Variations?  It’s just like that. Of all the great stage performers, Waits may be among the most believable.  It seems he never breaks character.  One advantage a musician has over a stage or film actor, is that everyone believes the persona they adapt.  Not for one moment would you question the fact that Keith Richards is a heroin addled vampire, but what if that was just some persona he adapted?  Whereas looking at Brad Pitt in Fight Club, you can kind of tell he’s putting it on a bit.

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Lets talk specific scenes.  By far, the best, is the dance sequence.  The basic theme of Waits’ character, is that he’s always there to make a bet with Parnassus, ready to take advantage of him in his weakest moments.  When it looks like he will inevitably win one of these bets midway through the film, he takes Parnassus’ daughter by the hand and says “Dance with me baby!”  and they go into a surreal ballroom sequence.  Its like the dream sequence of Big Lebowski.  They display serious moves, old school tango style.  The runner up would be, the first introduction of Waits, where he visits Dr Parnassus hundreds of years ago when he is a monk in an ancient temple.  Waits enters with a cigarette holder and a clarinet type contraption, and proceeds to suck the voice out of every monk chanting an ancient tale, in an attempt to prove that the world continues, even if no one tells its story.  Amazing.  A bird then shits on his hat, but that is neither here nor there.

My only complaint is that Waits had no songs on the soundtrack.  Come on, how cool would a musical sequence be, with The Devil on lead vocals and piano? I sight Shrek 2, when the used “Little Drop Of Poison” for the bar sequence, and Captain Hook sings the Waits parts.  Overall, the movie was not the best I have ever seen. The story did drag a little bit, and it felt a bit long, despite the powerful cast and beautiful imagery.  But lets hope Gilliam gets some ideas from this, and casts Waits in the lead for his next project?  Lets hope so.

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Dan Bern @ Naked Soul at The Rubin Museum Of Art

Who among us has not had their heart broken by a favorite musician.  A failed concept album, a sub par performance, a duet gone horribly wrong, its happened to all of us.  We hold music we love and those who create it to such a high standard, that it is an inevitability, we will be let down.  Once such case where I have experienced the dramatic highs and lows is with singer songwriter Dan Bern.

Bern may not have gained great notoriety, but in his craft, he is one of the best.  Early on he briefly carried the “next Dylan” torch as so many do, and surprise, did not be come Bob 2.0.  I cant really say he has any hits, but his greatest songs capture emotions and situations in such an ironic way, its kind of like as much Larry David as it is Bob Dylan.  He has songs about being the messiah, about aliens mating with monkeys to create the human race, about breaking into Bruce Springsteens house and pretending he is an ailing Woody Guthrie.  Not all songs are purely humorous, there are some beautiful ballads and various love songs in there, but they always approach the subject with a certain twist.  He’s a true original.

I was first introduced to Bern through a family friend, who took us all to see him at the college where she worked.  It was not a mind blowing performance, but I was intrigued by the lyrical content. And at this point in life, I really didnt listen to lyrics.  I was more of a Turn It Up and Shred type of kid, ya know?  But I cared enough to pick up some music, and go to see him when he swung through Boston while I was in school.  He played The Middle East in Cambridge, and the whole game changed.  My mind was blown.  It felt like I was seeing a young Dylan (i know that’s not a light statement)  He would jump between styles, with a fantastic full band, playing newly written ballads about 9/11 (this was in early 2002) classic acoustic audience participation songs, telling stories, it was beautiful.  It was so good that I braved the New England winter a second night in a row, and strained my broke ass college bank account to see him again, and he delivered.  I met him briefly before the show, he seemed spacey, I expected nothing less.  I saw him at the bar and said “Hey Dan”  and asked about some album related stuff, a girl walked up and said “are you the infamous Dan Bern?”  he replied “Sometimes?”  “well what are you other times”  “Lots of things?”.  It was perfect.
Dan Bern 3
Over the next few years he returned several times, and I never missed a show.  I sat outside for the first set at Club Passim, only having a ticket for the second, figuring the later one would be more relaxed.  In the middle of the show, he said “do you guys mind if I unplug?”  then left the stage, and sat in the middle of the crowd, playing whatever anyone wanted to hear, asking everyone to sing where appropriate.  It was the only night in my years in Boston, where I did not care about missing the 12:30 cut off of the T (or subway as anyone else would call it).  I saw him in LA during the 04 Bush Kerry election, and he got straight up political.  Playing some heavy Woody Guthrie tunes from the heart, it was like an old school battle cry…though we all know how that turned out.

He wrote the book Quitting Science, a first person account of the life of scientist Cunliffe Merriweather, who tours around the world “Doing Science”.  Its a beautiful novel, I’ve read it several times.  He uses science as a metaphor for music (never mentioning music once)  but all the same problems come up- his team gives him trouble, his tours are not going well, his experiments fail.  I highly recommend it to anyone, musician, scientist, whatever.  It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

But then it seemed something happened.  He took a turn for the worse.  His live shows became sloppy, he would forget lyrics, he definitely performed a little too drunk.  I left a few shows early, its like watching the last few Mohamed Ali fights, you just don’t want to see it.  He would have moments of brilliance, but overall, it was pretty dull.  It hurt.  But still, I tried to see him every time he passed through, hoping for a return of the champion.

No mics, but a big projection screen behind him.
No mics, but a big projection screen behind him.

Well, it was announced not too long ago that Bern would be playing the Naked Soul series at the Ruben Museum of Art.  This is an entirely acoustic evening….there’s not even a PA. There are no microphones in the room.  I LOVE this concept.  There is nothing at all to hide behind, it truly separates a good musician from the rest.  I figured if there were any venue for Bern to shine in, this would be it. Lets bring it back to the days of the Club Passim and whatnot.

The stage at the Rubin,  notice the absence of mics.
The stage at the Rubin, notice the absence of mics.

So the Ruben museum is a very cool place, its a Himalayan art museum, designed in a very cool way, not at all stuffy, lots of great colors.  They gave Bern quite an introduction, saying they asked him to think of the cosmos while preparing his performance. I figured, whatevs man, just play me some good jams.  He took the stage and seemed excited right away.  He made a few comments like “this is how ALL shows were 100 years ago, we’ve just accepted that amplified stuff is the norm these days, Woody had it easy!”  The room truly sounded amazing, the acoustics were some of the best I’ve ever heard.  My favorite part of all, is that the crowd had to be completely silent, since we were as loud as the sound coming from the stage.  Best Collaboration Of 2009.

Some great hits were busted out.  Lots off of New American Language (the only album of Berns which feels like a complete thought) and some classics like Jerusalem.  All in all, he was not in top form, but he was certainly back on track.  Like an athlete just back from an injury (whats with the 2 sports references so far, who am I?)  He was on his way, but not there yet.  He did explain that he just had a baby girl, which changed his life.  Previously he planned to move to a fishing village in Bolivia and paint pictures of the fishermen all day, until he realized bolivia is landlocked.  I don’t doubt that’s what happened. Maybe thats just what we needed from Bern.  Some sort of life changing event to bring him back into the picture.  Maybe he can work with Rick Rubin or T Bone Burnett on his next album, and create that Time Out Of Mind we’ve all been waiting for.

So I don’t know whats going to happen, I’ll still see Bern every time he passes through, each time hoping for greatness, trying not to hold it against him if he produces anything less.  In the meantime, read Quitting Science, it will make you feel good.