On Life As He Knows It

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

He’s been an integral part of American musical history From Woody Guthrie’s chronicling of the Great Depression and World War II to Bob Dylan’s protest songs of the 1960s to present day there have always been folk musicians offering comments and insights on the world and its foibles.

Dan Bern, one of the finest contemporary singer-songwriters, Visits Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz this weekend as part of his 50-date national tour to promote his latest album, “New American Language.”

Bern, who New York’s Village Voice has described as “folk’s most accomplished new wordsmith,”grew up in Mount Vernon, Iowa. The son of a Lithuanian concert pianist father and a German singer mother who both fled the Nazi atrocities of World War II, Bern was steeped in music from an early age. He took classical cello lessons as a child, but switched to guitar at age 14 after hearing Dylan and began writing his own songs.

By the 1990s, Bern had written thousands of songs and gained a strong cult following. He signed to Sony and released an EP entitled “Dog Boy Van,”which quickly was followed by his first album, “Dan Bern.”Critics were taken by his thought-provoking songs with subject matter ranging from the Oklahoma City bombing victims to Marilyn Monroe. His follow-up album, “Fifty Eggs,”was equally well received, and after a self-released double CD entitled “Smartie Mine,”he switched to his current label Messenger Records and released “New American Language.”

Of writing material for the new album, Bern says: “When I was making this record it was like, ‚ÄòLet’s be in service to the song – immediately what do the songs want, what does the story want, what do the themes want? It’s hard to get out of your own way.”

By letting the material take its own path, Bern has created a fascinating set of 12 songs. The songs are finely written and arranged. Bern’s lyrics are introspective without ever sliding into mawkishness or sentimentality Instead, one finds humor and sharp, incisive comment on life and the human condition.

“New American Language”sees Bern backed by a full band. He sings with a plaintive voice reminiscent of a young Dylan and gives an emotional performance that makes for compelling listening. His band, the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, provides backing in the best American rock tradition, with shades of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and REM. The result is an extremely strong album, which seems to demand just one more play.

Dan Bern’s appearance at Moe’s Alley on Sunday will be as a solo performer, with just his guitar and harmonica as accompaniment. His live shows have a reputation for being powerful and entertaining and draw enthusiastic responses from his audiences.

Catch his show this weekend, and find out why Bern has been described as “part troubadour, part stand-up comedian,”and “one of the most frighteningly witty thrillingly irreverent, deeply comical and monumentally insightful songwriters to strap on a guitar since rock music came of age.”

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, April 5, 2002

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