Silver Jews / March 18, 2006 / New York (Webster Hall)
David Berman has been through hell. Severe bouts of depression coupled with drugs and booze eventually led to a suicide attempt and then repeated stints in rehab. So it wouldn't be too much to call seDavid Berman has been through hell. Severe bouts of depression coupled with drugs and booze eventually led to a suicide attempt and then repeated stints in rehab. So it wouldn't be too much to call seeing him alive and well and on stage in front of hundreds of respectful, supportive followers something of a miracle.
Berman's long-running, ever-changing, self-described "slow country blues" musical outlet, Silver Jews, has a small, but obsessively dedicated fan base that packed New York's Webster Hall to the rafters for the second of a two-night stand. The crowd was buzzing, and for good reason: this was one of only a handful of planned stops on the group's first-ever tour and everyone in attendance was well aware of what it had taken Berman to get here.
Almost surprisingly at ease and upbeat when he took the stage, Berman kicked off with an amusing story about a formal marijuana competition staged by a couple of the band members and then led his team into a big, jangly version of "I'm Getting into Getting Back into You," off the group's 2005 release, "Tanglewood Numbers" (Drag City). This spunk continued right into another "Numbers" track, the galloping "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed." Although the three guitars on stage didn't always make it through the somewhat muddy mix, Berman's deep, clear baritone and the propulsive drumming of Brian Kotzur kept the band aloft.
The evening's earliest twist came next, with Berman giving Abe Lincoln a shoutout and then launching into a passionate musical rendition of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain." This subtle yet potent commentary, the first of several nods to Berman's frustration with the national state of affairs, lent itself to the quickly growing evidence that, had he come of age three or four decades ago, Berman might have been a pied piper-style figure in the vein of Bob Dylan or Neil Young. His worn, stark vocals and naked emotional honesty imbue him with an undeniable "wise sage" quality, and the quiet, focused crowd was a testament to his ability to enthrall.
The music itself seemed not too far off from vintage '70s classic rock in this setting, either, again bringing to mind Young and even early Tom Petty. The six-person group, which included Berman's wife Cassie on bass and occasional vocals, created a lush and resounding feel that is atypical of Jews records. Several stripped, straightforward laments became enveloping country rockers here, especially the classic "Dallas" from the well-tapped "The Natural Bridge" and "Slow Education" from "Bright Flight."
Other surprises included the dark, swirly, almost goth vibe drawn out of 1998's otherwise dusty "Smith & Jones Forever" and the ecstatic '80s bounce brought to the fore on the new "Punks in the Beerlight," a stylistic touch that was especially fitting in this dance mega-club only recently turned part-time rock venue.
On the other hand, not surprising was how hard "Horselg Swastikas" hit: with lyrics such as "I'm drunk on a couch in Nashville ... and every single thought is like a punch in the face," this shimmering, salient song carried a new poignancy all these years later, post-rock bottom but perhaps pre-out of the woods. Also getting a big reaction was Bob Nastanovich (Pavement drummer and frequent Jews contributor) coming out to perform on two songs, most notably the heartbreaking 1994 masterpiece "Trains Across the Sea," which was handled so delicately as to reveal a previously obscured beauty.
By the end of the 75-minute set, it was clear that while this may not have been the mind-blowing revelation some had hoped for (a couple of false starts and botched lyrics inevitably slowed the pace), it provided a substantially strong argument for Berman to keep his show on the road. And he seemed to agree, closing with, "We're gonna come back, I promise. I'll see you guys."
Here is Silver Jews' set list:
"I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You"
"Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed"
"O Captain My Captain"
"How To Rent a Room"
"Trains Across the Sea"
"How Can I Love You if You Won't Lay Down"
"Smith & Jones Forever"
"Sleeping Is the Only Love"
"The Poor, the Fair and the Good"
"Punks in the Beerlight"