Dan Bern strums an acoustic guitar, sings through his nose, free-associates with sly inspiration and name-drops historical figures. He is also prepared to deflect the inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan. In his late set at the Bottom Line on Tuesday night, he asked if the audience wanted to hear a Dylan song, then responded, ”Go listen to your records.” He did impressions of Mr. Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, demonstrating that he doesn’t sound exactly like any of them.
Still, he has learned a lot from them, as well as from Woody Guthrie, Elvis Costello, Loudon Wainwright 3d and Sting. Using time-tested chord progressions, he veers from comedy to anger, conjectures to shaggy-dog stories; he takes sidelong approaches to theology, science fiction, consumer culture, art, love and baseball. His lyrics bounce from image to image, seemingly at random, then suddenly pull together all the stray thoughts. Onstage, he was a wily savant, quizzical and wide-eyed but not naive.
One song imagined a more satisfied Marilyn Monroe married to Henry (not Arthur) Miller; another suggested that long ago, a bucolic Earth bartered its second moon to aliens for the dubious benefits of progress. ”I’m looking for one thing real tonight,” he insisted in a song that cited Santa Claus, Jesus and Vincent van Gogh. Some songs were one-joke drolleries, like one about Jews from Kentucky who ”drink our mint juleps from a kosher dill jar.”
But in songs like ”Estelle,” from his debut album, ”Dan Bern” (Work/Sony), he went deeper, examining the mysteries of obsession, friendship and creativity without losing his humor or sense of detail. For all he has absorbed from his models, Mr. Bern already has a sensibility of his own.
(When I was in Santa Cruz for the Desa show, I noticed an ad for not ”free beer” but ”Dan Bern”…)
And1: I did not catch these youngsters’ names but they seemed pretty happy about something: maybe they listen to John Sandidge’s radio show or indeed will be at the Dan Bern concert at Kuumbwa Friday next: