Bernin for you: Dan Bern at Club Helsinki. Photo
by: Shannon DeCelle
All His Ramblin’ Bring You Joy
Dan Bern, Luthea Salom
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
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.
Losers Lounge Tribute to Jesus Christ Superstar
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.
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
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
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.