Dan Bern - The Borderline, London
There's something satisfyingly appropriate in the fact that Dan Bern should choose to live in a town called Truth Or Consequences. Appropriate partly because a small New Mexico town is just where you expect a restless troubadour such as Bern to temporarily station themselves, but mostly because you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better distillation of Dan Bern's lyrical preoccupations than to say he is interested in truth or its consequences.
His most recent album—New American Language—is among the year's finest, and this gig at a sweaty Saturday-night Borderline was his third London appearance of the year. He lopes onto stage in cut-off shirt and combat trousers with his guitar slung low like a six-string Kalashnikov. An almost indecently prolific songwriter, Bern's songs fall into one of two categories: thought-provoking intelligent ones, and rambling flights of comedic imagination—although sometimes, of course, the most thoughtful songs turn out to be the funniest.
In his deployment of acoustic guitar and harmonica, in his marshalling of intelligence and wit and in his nasal delivery, comparisons with Dylan are inevitable and justified. And yet Bern arguably owes as much to Lenny Bruce as he does to Hibbing's finest. He has the predatory stage presence of the hungry stand-up searching the audience for the next laugh; when he sings he gnaws at the mic like a dog attacking a hunk of meat. His lyrics, too, seem sometimes to be more comic monologues than actual songs. On "Jerusalem", he imagines how the world would react if he revealed himself as the Messiah, and on a raucous "Marilyn" he flirts with how different Monroe's life would have been had she married Henry Miller and not Arthur Miller.
The new LP was well represented; highlights included an incendiary "Black Tornado" and a haunting "God Said No", where Bern imagines asking God for the power to alter history so that Kurt Cobain doesn't commit suicide and Hitler dies before he can launch World War II.
The audience seemed familiar not only with songs from the latest LP but older songs such as the movingly personal "Lithuania". But the biggest reaction came for an as yet unrecorded song. "Talkin' Al-Kida Blues" updates the '60s' protest folk of Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" with the preoccupations of today; communism then, terrorism now. It was undoubtedly political, but the audience were laughing as well as thinking. Proof that wit can reach places polemics can't, and a reminder Bern is not only one of the finest songwriters around but one of the few with something useful to say.