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.
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.
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.
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.