“If you’re gonna ruin my show, get the fuck out.” Dan Bern stopped midway through his first song, “Hey God”, to direct an astonishingly menacing dose of vitriol at a fan near the front of the stage who had committed the cardinal sin of laughing at the wrong moment. The person next to me whispered, “I’m scared,” and she meant it. Neither of these are sentences you’d expect to hear at a folk singer-songwriter’s show.
10 Nov 2002: Blind Pig Ann Arbor, Michigan
But then, Dan Bern is not exactly your typical folkie. Built like a linebacker and seemingly obsessed with sports and pop culture, Bern is no delicate flower. You’d be unlikely to catch him singing with his eyes closed or leading an audience in a round of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”. With his nasally Midwest twang and angry young man attitude, Bern garners the inevitable comparisons with Bob Dylan, but his penchant for celebrity-peppered lyrics and playful song premises tends to come off closer to John Wesley Harding’s interpretation of Dylan than to the man himself.
Dan Bern and the fan who had inspired his wrath made up quickly (the fan’s fevered explanation that he was laughing in recognition because Bern had unwittingly mentioned a local newspaper, while more than a little stupid, seemed to pacify the big guy), but that exchange was nearly the sum total of on-stage/off-stage interaction until almost the end. The audience in this tiny club didn’t appear to mind, though, made up as it was mostly of long-time fans who knew the words to every song and hung on every bon mot in them. As seemingly one of the few uninitiated in the place, I too could appreciate the wordplay and execution, if not always the attitude behind them.
Bern and his band the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy spent the next 90 minutes earnestly working through a tight set that ranged from arch to smug to quietly beautiful. Songs like “My Little Swastika” and “Cure for AIDS” were pretty much what you’d expect from this genre, though Bern’s near-perfect execution and the fleshed-out, rock-tinged sound from his very earnest band went beyond most expectations. Though many of the songs seemed to rely in part on clever premises or namechecking for much of their power, there were moments of sheer beauty in the set, like “God Said No”, that had the couples of all persuasions in the crowd swooning together in perfect rhythm. “Too Old to Die Young”, destined for a place in the song title hall of fame, was another standout, though its lyric, “Sometimes I wish I was smarter than I am,” made me shudder at the thought of a Bern with an even-larger mental storehouse of allusions.
The encore took place mostly in the audience. “Are You Going to Follow Your Soul” opened unpromisingly with a rather solemn march into the crowd by Bern and crew, intercut with a few mild-mannered mid-song scoldings from band members directed at the few of us not singing along. But the spectacle of Bern strumming an acoustic guitar surrounded by 100 or so ecstatic fans brought a smile to my face, especially when Bern finally displayed a moment of less-than-perfect musicianship by forgetting the words to the request called out by his keyboardist.
Bern ended with “Marilyn”, a song that asks the question, what if Marilyn Monroe married banned-books-favorite Henry Miller rather than canonical playwright Arthur Miller? It’s an interesting idea, but the kind of song that tends to make you pat yourself on the back for getting the references more than pay attention to whether it’s actually a great tune or not. But whichever it was, I’ll declare “Marilyn” a fitting end to the night. After all, I wouldn’t want to give Dan Bern a reason to kick my ass.