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Published: 2003/03/31
by Jesse Jarnow

Dan Bern, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 3/29

NYC ROLL-TOP: Talkin’ Bait-and-Switch Ephemeral Pop Blues

The other night at the Bowery Ballroom, Dan Bern played a new song called
"Tyranny". It's not a tune destined to go down in the annals of pop
protestery, but it hit in the right way. It name-checked George Bush, of
course, and went on to talk and sing about evil and war and some other such
shit that I can't really remember right now. At that particular moment,
though, as he was singing the lyrics and the crowd was parsing them in
real-time, it seemed to cue a kind of spontaneous reaction. Though the song
was far from improvised, and its political assessment far from profound,
there was a literal immediacy to it. As a shared experience, it worked.

Nearby in the same set was "Talkin' Al Kida Blues", a vintage slice of '64
Dylan witticisms and the leading track off of Bern's recently released
Swastika EP. Despite a few missteps in predictability, the song was
righteously funny — though demonstrated that protest songs have the uncanny
ability to be even more ephemeral than pop numbers. Given the subject
matter, that's an odd discovery to make. But, with George Bush's
bait-and-switching between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Bern's song
suddenly finds itself a relic of the jolly ol' peace-ridden days of

Bern's set was dominated by the vaguely punky folk-rock songs that fill
Fleeting Days, his freshly released album. Songs like "Crow", "Jane",
and "Baby Bye Bye" alternated between wry non-sequiturs and carefully
wrought emotions. Bern himself cut an image that toggled between these two
modes. Oddly enough, the place that Bern often split the difference was
through the cultural references he dropped with aplomb.

"Alaska Highway" threw in Leonard DiCaprio, Eminem, Cheech Marin, Keith
Richards, and others, for example. In the context of the song, none of the
figures did anything, in particular. They weren't employed as
characters, so much as general symbols. They built up like a house of cards.
And since there was nothing to knock over the house, that was perfectly
cool, though emotionally dissatisfying and felt kinda like a cheap trick.

Far more effective was "God Said No", also off of 2001's New American
Language, which was a wholly successful mingling of pop culture and
personal revelation. The first verses, during which the narrator asked God
to send him back in time to prevent Kurt Cobain from committing suicide,
were emotional in a cultural way. Through all of the references, it seemed
like that was the meeting point — a lyrical place where Bern could be both
safely funny and sad. It also opened up songs like "Alaska Highway" to a
slightly different intention.

By making a place like the Alaska Highway (oddly enough, not the same as the
Alaskan Highway), Bern seems to be looking for settings in which to
create stories, interact with characters, and the like. The trick, then (at
least for that family of songs) is for Bern to find incidents and figures
that allow him to get there. Different methods can be employed. If he keeps
ahead of the curve, it's what allows songs like "Tyranny" to be successful
in concert (and, in theory, on the radio).

But, yeah, the concert was good. Despite silly instrument stomping during
the set-closing "Graceland", there was little that was cathartic about the
evening — just good folk-rock made by good Americans.

Jesse Jarnow greatly enjoys the
knowledge that, in all probability, Ringo is probably as Ringo-like as he appears.

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