The Silver Jews’ progressive brand of alternative country from the heart of Tennessee is a welcomed deviation from the legions of doughy-eyed emo/indie bands, but its sold-out March 18 performance at Webster Hall — the band’s seventh concert ever — exposed frontman David Berman as one of the most fragile personalities in contemporary rock.
Berman has been songwriter, vocalist and guitarist ever since he played with Pavement‘s Stephen Malkmus and current Silver Jews drummer Bob Nastanovich as a trio called Ectoslavia while studying at the University of Virginia. His band’s 2005 release, Tanglewood Numbers, arguably one of the year’s best records, marked Berman’s admirable return from bouts with substance abuse and depression. But perhaps the most shocking news about the Silver Jews was that it would embark on a one-month tour, beginning with a March 10 show in Athens, Georgia. Webster Hall was alive with anticipation on March 18 after John Telle’s acoustic set and an uproarious mock-country evangelist performance by Tamie Mae Strong, a fellow Tennessean.
The Jews’ bassist, Berman’s wife Cassie, carried Berman throughout the set, tuned her bass, smoked the only cigarette to be lit all night, then took a snapshot of the audience before going backstage again. When the band emerged a few minutes later to a much louder applause, Berman peeled off his mesh hat, arranged his music stand and warned his “New Amsterdam” fans that the set might include “some clumsy moments.”
This terse introduction was well received when he mumbled through abbreviated versions of “Getting Back into You” and “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” to begin the eighty-minute set.
But throughout the performance, Berman fumbled through his songbook, routinely came into each song one line too late, and proved himself to be incompetent playing guitar while he sang. If the band hit its stride at one particular moment, it was when Cassie Berman carried the chorus of “Animal Shapes” and the rest of the band persisted with a crisp sound behind Berman’s awkward presence. Nastanovich, an original member of Silver Jews when it formed in 1989, seemed agitated with the vocalist’s inability to come in or start songs, but he was a resilient member who cued a number of songs.
Each song was a noticeable challenge to Berman, and so each successful selection was a pleasant surprise. He did better with pre-hiatus material, including “Pretty Eyes,” from Natural Bridge (1996), and “Trains Across the Sea” from Starlite Walker (1994). When David Berman took a much needed breather, Cassie Berman sang the evening’s highlight, “The Poor, the Fair and the Good.” Her smooth confidence was far superior to her husband’s angst-ridden dash through most of the set list.
In his defense, Berman did supplement his awkward nature with humility not often seen under bright lights and in front of a full house. His noticeable determination was evident in raw form Saturday night, his demeanor recalling a middle school kid who didn’t realize the horror of standing on the talent-show stage, but apparently ten years of not touring suggest that he knew what he would encounter on stage.
The set came to a fitting conclusion when David forgot to come in with the words for Tanglewood Numbers‘ opening track, “Punks in the Beerlight.” After his band raised the crowd’s hopes with a moving instrumental, Berman mumbled a couple words a few seconds too late, then interrupted his band, saying “I didn’t come in, see, I don’t do this. Can we try again? Let’s try again. Just because I don’t know the words doesn’t mean they all have to have a sucky experience.” After the crowd gave an appreciative cheer, he remembered when to come in, got through every verse, including the appropriate chorus, during which Cassie sang the fitting hook: “If it ever gets really, really bad/ Let’s not kid ourselves/It gets really, really bad.”
After the song left the crowd wondering if they would be treated to another song in which Berman could execute the lyrics, he dismissed the crowd’s hopes of hearing more with an honest pledge: “We’ll be back and I’ll know the words the next time.”
If David Berman is unable to make good on such a promise (let’s not kid ourselves: that is, if there is ever another Silver Jews tour), then perhaps the standards for David Berman should be raised. Or else he should be recognized as merely an aberration in the rock landscape who does not deserve sold-out crowds more than once.
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