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Concert Review: Silver Jews and Why? at High Noon, Madison, WI, 4-15-06

Although the Silver Jews have been around for 15 years, they’ve never actually toured. So, if for no other reason, their ultra-rare appearance at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, April 15 was not to be missed.

Why, after all this time, did David Berman and his band decide to finally play before live crowds? Berman: “I wanted to tour to spread a very important message: Do not call me ‘Dave.’ I hate it when people call me Dave, and it’s always super friendly people who call out, ‘Hey, Dave!’”

Now you know.

I like this reason better: When someone asked the guy working the merch table why the Silver Jews were touring, the guy said, somewhat jokingly, “He just bought a house; he needs the money.”

Whatever the reason, it was a treat to see this band airing out their music before an audience. It was only be band’s 12th show ever, Berman announced, making the band “newer than the Arctic Monkeys!”

The band kicked off with “There Is A Place” from their recent album Tanglewood Numbers. The song’s building refrain of “I saw God’s shadow on the world,” quickly engaged the sold-out crowd.

Other new songs the band worked in included “Animal Shapes” and the absurdist, rocking “Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed.” But the band rewarded its long-time fans by playing much of the best material from its older albums.
“Black And Brown Blues” was played early on and got a good reaction. “The Wild Kindness” from American Water sounded great, especially among other classic Silver Jews songs such as “Smith & Jones Forever,” “Random Rules,” “Horseleg Swastikas,” “Slow Education,” Pet Politics,” and “Dallas.”

Bearded, scruffy, and wearing a worn black blazer, Berman looked every bit the published poet he is. He also performed behind a music stand, which held his song lyrics, adding to the literary feel of the show.

As strangely endearing as it was to see Berman frequently lean down and squint at the lyric sheets on his music stand in the middle of songs, the prop added a barrier for Berman to hide behind, and it made his performance seem tentative and uneasy.

Unfortunately, Berman’s vocals seemed to be mixed low, muffling what is often the focal point of the songs — his lyrics, which are alternately quirky, brilliant and sad, but always singular.

The band — with Berman’s wife Cassie on bass — were competent but didn’t offer any unexpected surprises or really wow me. Maybe when they get around to playing more than 12 shows together, they’ll seem more formidable. Also, Cassie’s vocals, which sound so lovely on the albums, struck me a flat and uninspiring Saturday.

It’s hard to be too critical of the Silver Jews, though, because I’m still so excited to have actually seen them play. But it was clear that they haven’t quite worked out how to play before sold-out crowds yet. Also, Mr. Berman, would it have been too much to play “Send In The Clouds”?

When the band ended its encore with the fist-pumping anthem “Punks In The Beerlight,” complete with its unselfconscious lyrics, “I love you to the Max! I love you to the MAX!!!” it was easy to forget about the small performance flaws. At that point, the audience and Berman were on the same page, if only for a joyous, fleeting moment.

Opening band Why? impressed me with their solid set. Working with a keyboard and percussion instead of guitars, the band recalled the creative loopiness and lyrical interplay of the Unicorns, crossed with some of the white-boy-rap-styling of early Beck. These disparate elements came together surprisingly well as the band laid down some fun grooves and held the attention of the gathering crowd.

Photo courtesy of jhelmus.

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