Two years ago, reclusive poet-cum-songwriter David Berman took his country-rock outfit Silver Jews on tour for the first time in its 18-plus years of existence. The band—often incorrectly called a Pavement side project (Stephen Malkmus’ sporadic membership in Silver Jews predates Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted)—had grown a devoted following across five albums of vivid lyricism and drunken-Nashville accompaniment. Berman, a recovering drug addict with one suicide attempt under his belt, appeared more than a little uncomfortable during that tour, singing from a lyric sheet and seeming almost surprised that lines like “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” from American Water’s “Random Rules”, had become quasi-psalmist slogans for a generation of literate, disillusioned rock nerds.
What a difference two years makes. Since his shaky inaugural jaunt, Berman, a recent convert to the faith referenced in his band’s title, has journeyed to Israel, released his most upbeat album to date, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and fully embraced his role as the underground’s Dylan. This Silver Jews show at Washington, DC’s Black Cat was a homecoming of sorts, given that Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, and attended college in Charlottesville. He was introduced by his own grandmother and called out friends in the audience, which, since Silver Jews’ bassist (Cassie) is also Berman’s wife, gave the performance even more of a family feel than usual.
Any hints of stage fright have dissipated completely from Berman’s presence. Guitar-less, dressed in a blazer, and wearing thick eyeglasses, Berman strolled around the stage looking like a character out of Brad Neely’s Professor Brothers cartoon. Where last time around Berman seemed to be reading his songs, this time they are being sung outright. “Trains Across the Sea”, a tune from Silver Jews’ debut album with largely one-note verses, found a stirring melody with the help of Berman’s fresh confidence. The set was also livened by duets with the Mrs., such as the marriage ballad “Tennessee” and the sorrowful machine’s lament “Suffering Jukebox”. It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of Cassie Berman in the Silver Jews’ resurgence. On stage tonight it was all too evident that she is the poet’s rock, as Berman was frequently drawn to stand at her side and hardly attempted to hide his uxorious devotion.
In between songs Berman quipped that Silver Jews were “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds after taxes,” which is a good joke but altogether too modest. Silver Jews have turned out to be a considerably awe-inspiring live band. Hardcore Jews fans may continue to pray that Malkmus and his fiery axe attack would sit in for a show or two, but the no-names Berman has with him these days are no slouches, either. The versions of “Dallas” and “Horseleg Swastikas” played here were other-worldly and transcendent, with Berman preaching his colorful visions against backgrounds of chugging, rhythmic washes of country-noise.
The common complaint one gets these days when mentioning Silver Jews is that Berman’s two most recent albums don’t carry the lyrical weight of classics like American Water and The National Bridge. Sure enough, the uplifting if nevertheless cushiony “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” could not call forth the same goosebumps as the narcotic and eschatological “Pretty Eyes” on this night, but it’s unfair at this point to imagine one without the other. Five years ago no one would have predicted that Silver Jews would have turned into a truly outstanding live band, and so the fact that Berman has ceased chasing surrealistic daydream-transcriptions to instead write off-kilter country-rock ditties that sound great live should bother fewer people. Through the common combination of love, spirituality, and patience, David Berman has stumbled upon what might be mistaken as a happy ending but instead should be properly described as a new beginning.