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Bernin’ for you: Dan Bern at Club Helsinki. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

May All His Ramblin’ Bring You Joy
By Paul Rapp

Dan Bern, Luthea Salom
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., March 30

Dan Bern could be the next Willie Nile. Then again, he could be the last Bob Dylan. However painted, he is a great American singer-songwriter—passionate, erudite, goofy and opinionated. As long as his flame keeps burning, Bern is somebody you really have to see. His explosive yet casual and comfortable set at Helsinki Tuesday night had that force-of-nature feel, and was a celebration of every human emotion except lethargy.

Bern is playing at Revolution Hall on Saturday, and if you don’t go without good reason, well, you’re stupid.

The Dylan rap is obvious, as he’s clearly modeled some part of his persona on Big Bob (and name a contemporary singer-songwriter who hasn’t). His speaking and singing voice often mimic Dylan’s in both timbre and phrasing, so much so that a late-set Dylan impersonation seemed almost superfluous. But things depart from there. Where Dylan playfully shrouded himself with mystery, Bern’s a big bouncy open book. Only a masochist would call Dylan fun, and Bern’s nothing but. To a great degree, Bern veers closer to Lenny Bruce than Dylan.

The story goes that Bern’s bohemian immigrant parents wanted him to be a concert cellist, but he wanted to be a baseball player, and he wound up a ramblin’ folksinger. But he looks like a ballplayer, truth be told.

Playing alone, acoustic, with a neck-brace harp, Bern offered material that ranged from stop-start story songs to ditties to anthems, and to the occasional stream-of-consciousness rap, full of non sequiturs that might just make perfect sense if your dosage were calibrated correctly. Only occasionally did his lyrics get smooshy and treacly (and name one contemporary singer-songwriter’s that don’t) but this never lasted more than a few seconds, at which point Bern punched back with a blast of iconoclastic reality.

He initially ran through some of the highlights of his songbook, great tunes like “Black Tornado,” “One Real Thing,” “Chelsea Hotel,” and “God Said No,” sang with a blasting nasally tenor that was immediate and present. Stories abounded, hysterical stories, about things that happened to him last year, 10 years ago, one hour ago. There was a song that combined a boast about big balls, wanting to be Tiger Woods, and going down on Madonna. There was an anthem musing in some detail about what might have happened had Marilyn Monroe married Henry Miller instead of Arthur Miller. There was a song about the hypocrisy of villianizing Barry Bonds for using steroids. I could go on.

So I will. There was a new protest song he wrote about his local high school’s basketball coach’s benching a couple of star players. As inconsequential as that sounds, the song did what great folksongs do: turned the mundane into the mythical by putting an everyday occurrence through a provocative prism. And it didn’t hurt than the song was also devastatingly, humanly funny.

And Bern’s richness was doubled when he turned in several grand love songs, like the delicate and true “Alabaster,” the kind of song that’s capable of causing the earth to stop spinning for a second or two.

Opening singer Luthea Salom seemed uncertain and uncomfortable, as did her percussionist, the A-list producer Malcolm Burn. Can’t say I can say what that was all about.

Ham of God

Losers Lounge Tribute to Jesus Christ Superstar
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., March 27

America’s got Jesus fever! Ever since The Passion of the Christ was released on Ash Wednesday, there has been a plethora of upstart religious-themed productions dominating the live-music and theater circuits. Almost makes you wonder if Mel Gibson is getting a cut of all this. Well, if you think Passion was the most ridiculously over-the-top dramatization of the King of the Jews’ final hours (as I do), don’t forget that 30 years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice applied their collective heavy hand to Jesus’ last days in the form of—and boy, does this still sound hilarious—Jesus Christ Superstar. That’s right, Disco Christ and Jive Turkey Judas. Now if that’s not somehow blasphemous, I don’t know what is.

Joe McGinty hasn’t forgotten. On Saturday night, the New York City-based keyboardist and headmaster of the Loser’s Lounge brought an ensemble performance of the classic musical to the beautiful main stage at MASS MoCA and, blasphemous or not, it sure was fun. McGinty’s six-piece band (the Kustard Kings) handled all of the difficult time signatures and tempo changes—and there are a ton of them—with flair, traversing the intricacies of the score with an even-handed reverence. Meanwhile, the lighthearted spectacle gave more than a wink to the inherent goofiness of the source material, as three of the band members emerged in white choir robes, while guitarist Kris Terhune opted for the soldier outfit, which came off as vaguely Devoesque.

Lest we forget that Superstar was simply a concept album before it was transformed into classically awful cinema (and later into classically awful Broadway), so Saturday night’s production, while essentally just a recital of the source material, was actually refreshing in its lack of true dramatization. Instead of being required to emote, the band just stood firm and killed the music, especially drummer Marty Beller, who smacked his drumkit as if he were driving nails, while a team of six singers lined the front of the stage, handling the task of keeping the performance colorful.

The first act—we’ll call it The Last Temptation of Christ—was captivating from the opening licks of the overture. The vocalists took the stage shortly thereafter, dancing with flower-childlike exuberance, looking like extras from the cast of Saturday Night Fever, or at least a Saturday Night Live satire. While all of the singers were fine, the two leads were absolutely riveting. David Driver flew in and around the role of Judas (originally sung by Murray Head) while ex-Gravel Pit frontman Jed Parish, in an all-black suit and cummerbund, nailed his Jesus (pun fully intended), especially on “What’s the Buzz” and “The Temple,” the latter of which found him cranking out some Iron Maiden- worthy howls in fitting homage to the original J.C., Ian Gillan. The group vocals on “This Jesus Must Die” were a ton of fun, especially Wilder Selzer (a “founding member of Double Dong,” according to the program), who played an animated Caiphas in pink pajamas, with a stage presence that was part comic relief and part attention-starved 4-year-old. The only minor disappointment was Connie Petruk (Mary Magdalene), as her voice fell flat throughout most of her solo passages. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” came off as fine big ensemble ’70s AM-radio folk-pop, but Petruk is no Yvonne Elliman, and her voice ended up sounding like a backup singer from a Belle and Sebastian b-side.

After a short intermission, the group reemerged for the second act (The Passion of the Christ?) which, in all its thematic recapitulation, felt a little long, but still had its moments. “The Last Supper” became a tour-de-force as Driver and Parish engaged in a heated vocal exchange (“For all you care . . .”), and a few members of the backup band stepped up for the roles of apostles on “Peter’s Denial,” during which, suddenly, it looked as if they were having the most fun. Sean Altman (Rockapella) camped up “King Herod’s Song” in his leisure suit and gold medallion, and Driver gave another blistering performance during “Judas’ Death.” Later, “Pilate’s Dream” introduced a perhaps-unintentional subtext, with Pontius Pilate cast as a red-dressed temptress (Debby Schwartz). “Crucifixion” was cacophonous and spooky, the stage lighting cast in a deep purple, although Parish’s tongue-in-cheek delivery leavened the segment considerably. To add hilarious punctuation, they broadcast “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a direct effect of Superstar) over the P.A. as the audience exited. If that’s not somehow blasphemous, I don’t know what is. God bless ’em.

—John Brodeur

Voices Carry

The Bobs
Caffe Lena, March 23

To understand the appeal of the Bobs, start with some of the well-known songs covered by this a cappella quartet. “White Room,” for example. You treasure Jack Bruce’s angst-ridden vocal; you air-guitar along with Clapton.

The Bobs make little effort to reproduce these effects. They re-create them, in the sense that they’ve come up with something slightly new. Dan Schumacher, new to the Bobs lineup, puts his own manic energy into the vocal solo, and Amy Engelhardt makes with the air guitar licks to accompany her Gibson Firebird-worthy mouth music (saluting Clapton with a nod to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)—and all this while the others provide rhythm and percussion effects. And not a musical instrument in sight.

Just as there are fervent admirers of such things as polka and Dixieland, so too does a cappella singing have its adherents. But the range of close-harmony singing is vast, running from Motown to Monteverdi and including gospel singing and barbershop-quartet harmonies, both of which were celebrated in the Bobs’ original song “A Cappella Choir in the Sky.” Therein you learn that heaven itself is an a cappella festival, overseen by He who “blows the pitch/In our narrow market niche.”

But back to covers. A song like the Coasters’ “Searchin’” is an obvious match for the Bobs, with Richard Greene wrapping his creamy basso around the playful lyric while his confreres again combine to produce both a vocal backing (a sort of new-school doo-wop) and percussive effects, thanks to Schumacher’s mighty throat.

Some old songs we revere. Some now provoke wisps of embarrassment. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” like “Unchained Melody” and any Thomas Wolfe novel, is something you’re supposed to outgrow. When Matthew Stull gives it his manic metalhead rendition, revving the song way beyond what Cohen intended, the opaque lyric no longer matters. It becomes a feat of vocal acrobatics, ending with some startling physical acrobatics.

None of which would work so well if the group itself didn’t adore these numbers. And it’s not just the songs—it’s the stylings. During the 20-plus years that the Bobs have been in existence, they’ve amassed a portfolio of original material the merest glimpse of which we got during their recent Caffe Lena performance. It was their first appearance at the venerable venue, and they kept the Caffe’s folk heritage in mind by singing such numbers as “A Change of Heart,” a tale of a heart transplant with salubrious social side effects that featured a lead vocal from the ever-expressive Amy.

They can sing classical music, too, as proven by Richard and Amy’s virtuoso duet on the Prelude from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” with Richard’s lyric painting an amusingly credible picture of love in the Bach household. “All of our songs are about love,” Richard explained earlier, and that’s easy to believe if your view of love is maniacally skewed. “Late-Model Love,” another original, kicks in with a Muzak-Latin groove, against which Amy likens her lovers to rustbucket cars; “From the supermarket to the stars above,” sang Dan, “nothing is ‘Stranger Than Love,’” and Matthew pleaded his own case in “Be Bop I Love You” (“When I’m dreaming about a future time/I’m just scheming how to make you mine”).

Hearing the group’s recordings gives a taste of their talent, but their onstage antics add an even more enjoyable dimension. The song “Slow Down Krishna” defies explanation, yet it’s one of the funniest numbers I know. Seeing it performed is even more hilarious.

Opening for the Bobs was another Bob, singer-songwriter Bob Malone, who tackled the Caffe’s upright piano and never let go during his short but dynamic set. He has monster chops, going from a breathtaking stride into a devastating blues with equal aplomb, and his songs have an impressively high degree of wit and accomplishment. “I know he’s your husband,” Malone belted in a raspy voice, “but he don’t know I’m your man,” which set the tone for the blues-inflected country lyrics that characterize his songs. Among the highlights: A new song, “Age of Steam,” was an affecting lament for an idea of the past, while “Valentine’s Day” was a well-crafted, cliché-free love ballad.

Malone returned for the evening’s encore, joining the Bobs in that manic “Bird on a Wire.” It’s probably the only time you’ll hear Leonard Cohen by way of Jerry Lee Lewis.

—B.A. Nilsson

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