Dan Bern: Jamming with words
by Seth Rogovoy

When Dan Bern takes the stage at BerkFest on Saturday, there will be a different kind of jamming going on, one that harkens more to Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets than to the Grateful Dead and Phish. For Bern’s tools are primarily words, although they are no less jamming than Moe’s twin guitars or Sector 9’s electro-beats.

Bern’s songs mix incisive cultural criticism with devastatingly frank autobiographical confession. One minute he’s singing about Kurt Cobain and the next he’s referring to his father, a Holocaust survivor. The secret to why the combination of the two works so well in his hands is that he sees no difference between them.

“I don’t separate the strictly personal and what we’ll call the culture out there,” said Bern in a recent phone interview. “They all sort of feel like the same thing. I take what we call cultural stuff very personally.”

Bern has already built up a memorable catalog of songs on his first few albums, including his eponymous debut and the Ani DiFranco-produced “Fifty Eggs,” which included “Tiger Woods,” a hilarious deconstruction of celebrity and sexual obsession, and “Different Worlds,” an equally incisive critique of race relations in America.

Bern’s next album, “New American Language,” due out in October, is full of equally powerful, memorable material. “Toledo,” inspired by a visit to the ancient Spanish city, is a dreamlike reverie that invokes Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition; the title track is about cultural conformity; “Thanksgiving Day Parade” is an updated version of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

“God Said No” may well be the album’s highlight. The best bit of theological rock music since Crash Test Dummies’s “God Shuffled His Feet,” it continues in the vein of Bern’s songs that search for meaning in the face of cruelty and absurdity.

“I feel like I’m on some kind of spiritual quest,” said Bern. “It’s weird because thirty years ago or two-hundred years yrs ago it would not have been weird to say this. But I feel like in 2001 it’s a slightly, weird corny thing to say. But I feel like life is a gift. And so I’m wanting to try to make use of that gift as well as I can. Sometimes you struggle with how do you do that and if you are doing that.”

Bern solves that dilemma by writing acute, trenchant folk-rock songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. But he compares his efforts to those of a simple craftsman constructing a simple, wooden box with “a nice hinge.”

It’s the approach he took with his new album. “As a record maker, I wanted it to be like the box,” he said. “I wanted to build a good, solid box that stood alone by itself as a box and didn’t need me to come along and explain it. Or didn’t need me to come along and build you another box right in front of you.”

Backstage bits

When the folks over at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington were faced with the unexpected cancellation of tomorrow night’s show by Judy Henske, they were in a bind. They had to find a performer who could fill in the date at a moment’s notice and without the usual, complicated, back-and-forth negotiations that take place when a promoter tries to book an act. Plus, with little time to publicize the date, they needed someone well known, someone whose name would be a sure bet to draw a full house. Fortunately, they didn’t need to look very far. Arlo Guthrie himself had a blank on his calendar for tomorrow night, so you can catch Arlo on his home turn at the Guthrie Center on Friday at 8.

Can’t wait until tomorrow for BerkFest to begin? Check out Wax Poetic tonight at Club Helsinki for a preview of what’s to come over the weekend at Butternut Basin. The N.Y.-based, world-beat-flavored, trip-hop ensemble mixes jazzy riffs with electronic beats. The brainchild of tenor saxophonist/keyboardist Ilhan Ersahin, Wax Poetic – with its mix of scratching, samples and spoken word over dub, reggae and funk-based grooves -- sounds like a Middle Eastern-influenced, downtown-jazz version of the Fugees on its self-titled debut CD on Atlantic Records. The group began as a loose assemblage of friends – including downtown stalwarts like Kenny Wollesen, Cyro Baptista, Jamie Saft and Tony Scherr -- who would get together at the East Village club Save the Robots and jam with Ersahin, an immigrant from Turkey with a cosmopolitan musical palette. Now a self-contained unit, Wax Poetic goes on at about 9 tonight at Helsinki and then performs at BerkFest at various times on Saturday.

And while jam-bands are attempting jazz-derived improvisations over at BerkFest, saxophone great Hamiet Bluiett will be doing the real thing at Helsinki on Friday and Saturday nights. A key figure on the avant-garde jazz scene, Bluiett has two new albums out: “The Calling,” a collaboration with keyboardist D.D. Jackson and drummer/vocalist Kahlil El’Zabar, and “25th Anniversary,” a reunion album with the World Saxophone Quartet, of which he was a co-founder. With so many jazz acolytes in town for BerkFest, there’s a good possibility that there will be some impromptu jamming with guests at Bluiett’s sets.

The end of August will be bringing two full weekends of jazz to the Berkshires. But if you just can’t wait that long, you might want to head over to Newport, R.I., this weekend, where the famed jazz festival features an eclectic lineup ranging from Peggy Lee throwback Diana Krall to Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Chuck Mangione, Roy Hargrove, Ravi Coltrane, John Patitucci and Danilo Perez. What Newport boasts that other mainstream festivals lack is a focus on younger and more experimental performers, including turntablist DJ Logic, Arabic oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen, free-jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer, acid-jazz group The Slip, Los Hombrews Calientes, and innovative pianist Uri Caine.

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