Dan Bern in “The American Venice”
On Thursday, May 8, Dan Bern – resplendent in a circa-1979 Pittsburgh Pirates cap, with 75 of his best friends – turned up the heat at Club Cafe on the hottest night that Pittsburgh has enjoyed since last fall. There’s a set list, scrawled in purple ink on the back of discarded credit card receipts. But rather than tell you about the songs, I’m going to describe how it felt to watch the peripatetic troubajoyeur spin his silky tales and elicit lusty sing-a-longs.
First, my personal Bernography: Dan Bern has evolved for me into a channeler of joy. I first saw him at the Bottom Line in New York in the spring of ’97 and his candor sometimes rankled audience members. He was always funny but songs like “No Missing Link,” performed at an afternoon main stage show at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, which caused some people to get up and leave in a huff when he exhorted them by singing, “Aliens came and…”, to which we were to respond “fucked the monkey, they fucked the monkey.” To my sensibilities, this was all greatly entertaining, but the moms in the crowd were riled. He mixed humor with iconoclastic viewpoints about sex, war, and politics. It was a balancing act that occasionally saw him fighting himself to stay on the wire.
But, with 2006’s Breathe, his observations turned more upbeat and harmonious, both in the delivery and the content. Less disputatious, I’d say, though you’ll still find him pushing buttons on a given night. Last night’s show would’ve felt warm on even, to quote Bruce Cockburn, “the coldest night of the year.”
He’s come to favor not only the Woody Guthrie songs, but those of country greats like Haggard and Cash, among others. And his vocal range allows him to inhabit everything from Jacques Brel to Lennon/McCartney, too. The crowd was lifted by a song that he wrote the day before while enjoying the Pirates-Giants matinee across the rivers. He invoked old Bucs’ legends Honus Wagner, “Pops” Stargell and, of course, Roberto Clemente and the yellow bridge that fans walk to the ballpark. Further, no song about Pittsburgh would be complete without the obligatory reference to Mr. Rogers.
He also employed a local harmonica player and the opening act, Akrasia, to evince his appreciation for community. One of the lines that I managed to collect went: “We mighta found our souls in New York, but here we all found our hearts.” He went on to charm the Bern Ward by likening our humble hamlet to “The American Venice.” To those who’ve visited Pittsburgh in the last 20 years, its old reputation as a smog-choked, industrial rust belt town has long since been replaced by a stunning skyline, diverse cuisine, world-class museums and friendly, hard-working folks. To use a tennis analogy (Federer-Nadal was on last night’s set list): Game. Set. Match.
And, he stuck around to swap stories and sign mementos. The dude’s a mensch. Go sing with him next time he’s in your town.