Features | Concerts

Silver Jews

By Peter Hepburn | 20 March 2006

Living out of the U.S. for much of the second half of 2005, there were a number of times when I couldn't help but regret some of the great concerts I was missing. Sure, it was laid back and an important cross-cultural experience and all that, but come on: Jeff Magnum playing with the Olivia Tremor Control. Shit like that just doesn't happen every day. Dan Bejar has pretty much ruled out the possibility of another full-band New Pornographers tour, so the chances of witnessing a proper "Execution Day" or "Jackie" live in concert seem unlikely.

Still, there are certain concerts (or in this case tours) that are even further out there and even more painful to miss. The very idea of Dave Berman going out on tour seemed unlikely even as late as the release of the excellent fifth Silver Jews LP, 2005's Tanglewood Numbers. In an interview I conducted with Berman prior to the release of Tanglewood he told me that he'd do it, "If it paid well and I could figure out away to get off by myself." Still, if it hadn't happened in the last 15 years, what were the odds it was going to go down now? And even if it did go down, what are the chances that it wouldn't suck? It takes most bands at least a full tour to get their act together, gain some stage presence, and learn how to make it work. How would Berman and whatever ramshackle band he could get together manage to live up to the songs?

Still, like any good indie rock fan with a well-positioned spring break and access to a car, I did the one reasonable thing given the situation: bought a ticket to go see the Silver Jews kick off their first ever tour in Athens, GA, March 10, 2006.

Now, the road from Washington, DC to Athens, GA isn't always straight, and I ended up in Nashville, TN, a week before the Athens show. Mostly I was there to visit a sibling, but by a lucky twist of fate, Berman, a Nashville-resident, decided to play a free warm-up gig before the tour. So I found myself at The End, in a room with a 200-person capacity, standing five feet away from Berman, at the first Silver Jews show in years.

Now sure, on some level the show could have consisted of Berman sitting quietly on a chair completely destroying his songs and I still would have been blown away. I suppose only the mediocre would have been a disappointment, but neither mediocrity nor disappointment factored into the evening at all. Right from the beginning, opening with a spot on "Random Rules," The Silver Jews made it clear that this was a proper show, not the warm-up that Berman had warned us of before picking up his guitar.

A good deal of the success of both shows I saw the Silver Jews put on is clearly attributable to the band that Berman has managed to put together for the tour. Sure, Malkmus isn't out there on lead, but Berman's managed to find himself a blazing lead and strong rhythm guitarist to augment his unsteady picking. Wife Cassie plays bass, keys are light but well-played and drumming duties switched off for both shows between tour manager (and former member of Pavement) Bob Nastanovich (for "Trains Across the Sea," "New Orleans," and "How Can I Love You (If You Won't Lie Down)") and an excellent long-haired guy who covered all the other songs. I came in half expecting Berman and a few guys to be dicking around and left with a stronger appreciation for the three-guitar front in indie rock. How many bands sound this good having played no more than 10 shows?

Still, there was something surreal about the whole Nashville show. It was the little things, really: bumping into Steve West on my way to the bathroom, noticing that the power strip at the front of the stage had "Pavement" written on it, or Bob Nastanovich handing me a PBR half-way through the set. Berman wasn't very talkative at the Nashville show, shuffling papers between songs and looking hunched and nervous. His eyesight isn't very good and his contacts weren't cooperating. The really strange thing was the realization that the fans knew the songs far better than Berman himself, who had to keep his song-book close by for all but the two covers that the band played--a rousing "Oh Captain, My Captain" and a searing cover of a T.G. Shephard song that closed the show (the band played a weaker version at the Athens show). I owned Starlite Walker even before I picked up a copy of Slanted and Enchanted, and a good amount of the Silver Jews discography is burned into my mind. While Berman and his crew more than did the songs justice, it was still a bit odd to see the man himself trying to remember the lyrics to some of what I consider some of the best songs of the '90s.

Of course, one of the treats of both shows was Berman playing to the fans. At the 40 Watt show a few days and some 500 miles after Nashville he apologized to his fans for not touring up to this point. Coming on the heels of American Water classics "Random Rules" and "Smith & Jones Forever," the apology was almost unnecessary. While the band was a bit sloppier in Athens, it was nice to see Berman more animated, even funny and personable. In Nashville, Nastanovich had been yelling support and examples of stage banter from the back of the stage--by Athens Berman seemed to have caught on and was actively engaging the audience. Song selection made it a pretty easy sell too; aside from the aforementioned Starlite Walker and American Water tracks, Berman spent much of both nights in the back catalogue. In Nashville the highlights were "New Orleans," a fantastic "Punks in the Beerlight," "Slow Education," and Cassie taking the mic for "The Poor, the Fair, and the Good." In Athens it was "Horseleg Swastikas," "Inside the Golden Days of Missing You," "Buckingham Rabbit," and a dead-on "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" that really got the crowd moving.

Hopefully this is only the start of a more active touring schedule for the Silver Jews. Given another few months and some experience out on the road it seems likely that Berman and the band he's put together could become a force to be reckoned with. Seeing them right at the beginning of this venture into the public eye was a treat (and really very good), but I can't wait to see how Berman's doing after a month or so of this tour. Who knows; it wouldn't be surprising if they never tour again.