The first time I saw Dan Bern, in 1997, he cracked up the crowd with his wild, clowny lyrics, shock played up for laughs, and comedic monologues set to solo acoustic guitar, their words spilling over the ends of lines. In one song alone he ranted about Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods, told a tawdry story about Madonna, and bragged about his own anatomy. His lyrics were fresh and clever, but he seemed practically a novelty act, telling jokes you could hear only so many times. "I'd buy his CD used," said a friend, "but not new."
Then, last year, a transformed Bern released his fourth album, New American Language. Its songs are still a crazy, messy mix of people, situations, and visions of pop culture as a nightmare fun house. But his lyrics reach deeper, full of metaphor, storytelling, strong emotion, and wanderlust. It sounds as if he's absorbed mid-1960s Bob Dylan and early Elvis Costello, learning to leap from lighthearted wordplay to weighty judgment in a single line. He plays with a rock band now, alternating between electric anger and subtle, sublime laments, and the band tames him, holding the songs together by keeping him close to the melody.
When Bern and his band, the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, played the Ark last winter, half the crowd loved his transformation. The other half wasn't ready for it. Initially welcomed with the good-vibe cult-hero reception the Ark often extends to charismatic folkies, he beamed back. "Feel free to sing along," he said. "These are your songs too."
But Ark audiences aren't used to having their heroes turn up their amps. So when Bern asked about the sound mix after an especially loud song, part of the crowd rose up like Dylan's audiences in 1966. "More vocals!" "Turn the band down!" "Send the bass player home!"
Bern looked stunned. "Thank you. Good night!" he declared, mock-earnest, and then led the band into a relentless rocker with the chorus "I ain't answerable to you." "Could you hear that all right?" he asked afterward, smiling angrily.
Undaunted, he played a set full of New American Language tracks and a new batch of songs that also travel through landscapes wrapped in sorrow. To end the concert, he and the Conspirators unplugged their acoustic guitars, spread out amid the crowd, and sang three songs, including "Toledo," a song that's epic and faux-epic in turn, irreverent and reverential at once, aching with spirituality and alienation. "Standing in the fields," he sang, "Beneath the universe, you hurt / 'Cause as the Milky Way whirls over you / All you got is dirt."
On Sunday, November 10, Dan Bern plays the Blind Pig. That'll give him a better audience for his racing, manic road trips of the mind. Hopefully, the crowd will appreciate the quiet, solemn songs too.