Silver Jews – The Earl (Atlanta, GA)
“This is our second show ever,” said Silver Jews frontman David Berman, standing a bit sheepishly in front of the microphone, looking the part of the just-emerged recluse, his beard uncoiling every which way and his greasy black hair matted tightly over his head. “We’re going to do the best we can.”
The closely clumped gathering of fashionable nerds assembled in the back room of the Earl in Atlanta cheered with a gusto untempered by the normal concerns of indie-rock apathetic decorum. This was an event: For the last dozen years, Berman, recording as the Silver Jews along with a rotating group of friends, has developed a cult following for the grim poetry of his songwriting, strange and blackly funny and wise. But until this spring, Berman has never been willing to venture out on the road with his peculiar brand of literate, slatternly twang.
“Baby let’s get dressed up/I got two pairs of shoes,” Berman sang in his deadpan bass as the band launched into “Black And Brown Blues” from the 1996 record The Natural Bridge. A music stand with a clip-on light propped up a scattered stack of lyric sheets next to Berman, and it quickly became clear that the crowd knew the words to his songs better than he did. The effect was almost like watching someone perform karaoke, as Berman would glance to the music stand before tentatively turning to the mike to sing.
The Silver Jews, with a catalogue of never-performed songs stretching back more than a decade, pulled from all five of their albums, from a rollicking, hypnotic rendition of 1994’s “New Orleans” (Berman both at his most desperate — “Please don’t say that my soul has died away” — and wryly odd — “There is a house/In New Orleans/But not the one you’re thinking of/I’m talking about a different house”) to the fuzzy barroom snarl of last year’s “Punks In The Beerlight”. That ode to drunken self-destruction features Berman’s wife Cassie seductively crooning, “If it ever gets really, really bad…” in her honky-tonk alto. Berman’s nihilistic retort — “Let’s not kid ourselves/It gets really, really bad” — was tempered onstage by an affectionate and thankful grin at his wife, as if gently nodding to the demons he’s managed to put behind him, at least for now.
In addition to Cassie, Berman was backed by an assortment of Nashville players and former Pavement drummer Bob Nastonovich. Notably absent was Berman’s more famous sometime-collaborator, former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, who played guitar on last year’s Tanglewood Numbers. The band still managed to channel Malkmus’ spirit with the chaotic ethos of art-school imperfection; they jumbled and jammed the notes and timing, the songs ending hazily, fading away.
All of it — the loose and sloppy music, the slightly nervous singing, the awkward chatter — was like getting a glimpse of the ungainly moment of creation instead of the mechanized routine of performance. Berman appeared a bit taken aback by what amounted to one of his first exposures to a room full of Silver Jews fans, but he seemed to bask in the appreciation nonetheless. In a line that sounded like it could have been taken from one of his songs, he croaked, “You’re gonna make me compliment you, but I’m not that kind of guy.”