Friday, October 24, 2008

Concert Review: Silver Jews

“Time to go to work.”

My jaw dropped as the tall, lanky figure in a grey suit sauntered past. David Berman had just walked into the Picador.

The frontman of Silver Jews, Berman is arguably one of the best songwriters in America. Despite garnering critical acclaim and minor indie scene stardom, Berman and company only recently started touring in 2005.

I felt some apprehension after my initial excitement when I saw the Silver Jews were coming to Iowa City to play at the Picador in support of their recently released album, Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea. What if they weren’t good live? I’d seen some YouTube videos of the band playing live where they just looked flat and lifeless onstage. However, my fears were unfounded.

After a puzzling and entirely overlong encounter with opening anti-folk act The Mattoid, Berman and his band took to the stage. Starting with the opening track off of 2001’s Bright Flight, “Slow Education”, Silver Jews played a career-spanning set. Berman’s rough, gravely, whiskey-tinged voice was the first sound heard out of the Jews singing, “When God was young/ He made the wind and the sun/ And since then/ It's been a slow education.” Towering, bearded, and balding and equipped with a shiny oversized belt buckle that read “Joos,” onstage Berman comes off like a beat poet with a great backing band, wobbling all over the place, leaning on the micstand, and gesturing along with his lyrics. I caught myself chuckling at many points during the concert, Berman’s semi-absurd lyrics and gestures exposing new meanings to the lonesome, lyrically sprawling songs.

A rarity for bands touring on the heels of a recently released LP, only five of the eighteen songs on the Silver Jews’ setlist came from Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea. All six of the band’s LPs were represented with multiple songs. One of the highlights of the night came when Berman strapped on a bright blue acoustic guitar and played “Random Rules”, the lyrically brilliant jangly opener off of American Water. Featuring the opening line, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”, voices from the crowd joined Berman’s as he took Iowa City across all the wrong rivers and for a walk down all the wrong halls.

On many of the post-American Water (1998) songs, Cassie, Berman’s wife and bassist, shared vocal duties on the choruses. The couple played off of each other onstage, Berman at times turning towards Cassie and singing parts of songs directly to her. This sounds cliche and kitschy, but for those in the audience it seemed natural, with a sort-of Johnny Cash and June Carter vibe to it.

Berman tore down all pretense to the concert, telling stories, dedicating songs to people in the audience he’d met before the concert, and often wandering around the stage during instrumental breaks in songs as if looking for something. After the last song of the regular setlist the rest of the band exited the stage. Berman stayed. Pointing out the ridiculousness of an inevitable encore, Berman stood onstage sipping a drink while the band filtered back through the door.

The show’s encore was solid. The crowd applauded when the first creepy, paranoid notes and thumps of “New Orleans” were heard. After the post-modern freakout at the end of “New Orleans”, Berman and company turned to a more conventional type of song, a love ballad. On the auto-biographical “Tennessee”, David Berman serenaded his wife singing, “We're gonna live in Nashville and I'll make a career/Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear.” Silver Jews closed with one of their more uptempo songs from 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, “Punks in the Beerlight.” The night ended with everyone in the audience singing the chorus. “I love you to the max! I love you to the max! I love you to the max!”

Moustache Salad gives the Silver Jews in concert a fu-manchu with side-burns. (4.5 out of 5)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Concert Review: Ben Folds

"It's so weird to be back here."

Let me get this out of the way first. I’m a pseudo Ben Folds fan at best. I dig the stuff by Five, Rockin’ the Suburbs is pretty good, and Songs for Silverman is okay. They’ve all got their moments. While I’m not a huge fan, I went in to this concert with some decent-sized expectations. This is his third show here, so he’s got to be doing something right. Plenty of my friends have seen him before and all of them came back with shining reviews, so I figured I’d be in for the same. Real quickly, Missy Higgins was a good opener. Nothing I’d listen to again, but it was a cute set and fit the piano-rock atmosphere. She was adorable to boot. Onwards to the main act.

Standing in the second row of people against the gate right in front of the piano, I was a bit confused by the whole silhouette, flashing lights, and corny eighties intro. I know it was probably meant to be cheesy to the point of being humorous, but it came off as just cheesy. The first half of the set was pretty heavy with songs from his new album, Way to Normal. This totally makes sense as it was just released less than a month ago. That said, it doesn’t make the songs any less worse. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Way to Normal isn’t terrible; it’s not even really bad. However, it’s mediocre for a Folds album and was a bit of a disappointment.

I just couldn’t get in to many of the new songs, and it was only made worse every time we had to hear an alternate version from their “fake leak” (for those not in the know, the band recorded joke versions of songs off the new album and leaked them early as a prank). I’ll give it to him; some of them are delightfully bad while others are better than their “real” version, but hearing two fairly similar songs in the same concert and even back to back occasionally was just too much. Another letdown came when I saw “Hiroshima”, one of the better cuts off …Normal, on the set list, but apparently it got cut for something else. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night came when the band played, “Landed”, one of my favorite Folds songs, only for this version they decided to half-ass it and remove any joy I could’ve had. Finally, the closer, while fun, was weak for a show ender.

Alright angry Ben Folds fans, you may be out for blood at this point, but put the torches and pitchforks down. I actually enjoyed the show and thought it was a pretty good time. As many negative things that I’ve said, I was very impressed every time he dipped into his older catalogue. I’ve always had a soft spot for Whatever & Ever Amen, so “Kate” was nice and “Fair” was incredible. Even the major hits that I’ve sort of tired of like “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “Zak and Sara” were a treat to see. I have to give it to him on the Altoid-assisted “Free Coffee” too. That was just plain cool. Ben is a very energetic, little fellow. Watching him play was a blast, because he loves what he does and he’s very good at it. While I may not dig the new songs very much, he’s still an incredibly talented pianist. In the end, was it worth the seven bucks? Easily. Far from incredible, but at least it was fun.

Ben Folds gets a Joe Sixpack moustache (3 outta 5).