MUSIC REVIEW: Dan Bern at Club Helsinki Hudson

Classical Music
At Large


Dan Bern

Club Helsinki HudsonFebruary 21, 2011

Review by Abby Wood



(HUDSON, N.Y., February 21, 2011) Dan Bern is one of those artists that, depending on which of his songs you hear first, you develop a very distinct impression of him; which makes hearing that second song all the more delightfully surprising.


My sister’s first encounter with Dan Bern was at an Ani Difranco concert in the early 2000s (Difranco produced Bern’s 1998 album Fifty Eggs). Bern came out stomping in his boots and grunted, “I got big balls” (the first line of his hilarious song, “Tiger Woods”)—a pretty gutsy, and memorable, move at an Ani show.


My sister passed that song on to me, and I came to the quick conclusion that Bern was a comedic folkie with a nasally voice aimed toward imitating Dylan in some ironic way. That was, until I heard “Everybody’s Baby,” a sentimental song off the same album. Suddenly Bern’s voice wasn’t sarcastic and gritty anymore, but subtle and full of pain and loss—not a mere imitator of Dylan but a true descendent of his folk legacy.


So, coming into my first live Dan Bern experience this past Monday night at Club Helsinki, I decided to keep an open mind; if he had already surprised me once, who knows what he might come out with this time. I was right to keep any expectations at bay.



Falu, an Indian vocalist from New York City, opened the show with her six-piece band. I always find it extremely interesting to review music in a foreign language—it forces you to pay close attention to emotion and, in this case, the way the ensemble works together. With a mix of both traditional folk and Indian instruments--including mandolin, violin, and tabla--the group seamlessly blended classical Indian vocals with an alternative folk-rock style.


One song, based on an ancient melody in Persian, had undertones of the blues scale, and everyone was blown away when Falu began rapping syllables so fast that it sounded like one constant stream of Indian scat. Others, beginning with prayer-like chanting, would quickly turn into multi-layered grooves, with jam sessions between the guitar and violin or the tabla and drum kit. Each performance was more impressive than the last, and this band’s intriguing sound is sure to garner more attention very soon.



Dan Bern’s band, Common Rotation, took the stage for a few numbers before Bern came out. The band had a light indie-folk vibe, with three versatile musicians and a back-and-forth duo of vocals similar to the Barenaked Ladies. What set this folk trio apart was the addition of a multitude of instruments: harmonica instantly pushed them into the bluegrass realm, trumpet solos gave subtle jazz tones, and a small xylophone added a quirky touch reminiscent of the Mountain Goats.

Dan Bern took the stage in the middle of a song carrying his guitar, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and looking rather rugged with his open, wrinkled flannel, jeans, bandanna, and crooked cowboy hat. He jumped into the middle of cowboy love song that set the musical impression for the night’s performance: old-fashioned acoustic folk with a bluegrass twang.


Unfortuntately, the sound mix was completely off, leaving everything muffled and Bern’s vocals completely lost under the guitars. He spent his first few numbers visibly miffed about the screeching feedback, and stopped a few times to berate the sound guy--even going as far as to playfully add an impromptu lyric towards him.


Bern played over twenty songs that night, and a majority of them were very country- or bluegrass-inspired. The addition of a slide guitar solidified this on many tunes, including “Turning Over,” a bluesy tune full of desperate lyrics like “My insides feel like a ghost town.” On “Black Tornado,” the harmonies the band added were so twang-ified I could almost see them all playing in some run-down honky-tonk bar in the South for a shotgun wedding. Even Johnny Cash’s “Cadillac,” a gritty talkin’ blues number about stealing car parts from the assembly line, was softened by the bands’ singing the chrous in a round behind Bern.


As the night went on, the twang began to give way, if only just a little bit, to let some folk rock shine through. “Capetown” was reminiscent of the longing in Bob Dylan’s “Going to Acapulco,” and “God Said No” touched on some classic folk-rock topics: pop culture, history, and religion.


Bern played a very large set, which sometimes comes at a risk. In going from one song to the next very quickly, with barely any time for applause, and in playing so many short and sweet songs about heartbreak, they all began to sound a bit monotonous.


One thing that did break up the set were the few comedic songs that Bern chose from his repertoire. Appropriate for President’s Day, “Weird Little Thing” was a fun number about the uncanny similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy, and garnered a great call-and-response from the audience; and “Old Mother Hubbard” was a cynical, grotesque, and hilarious spin on the old nursery rhyme.One stand-out was a new song he introduced about an unexpected member of the family getting caught drunk driving, with a repeating chorus of “Grandma blew a point two!”


And, of course, there was “Tiger Woods,” which is all the more ironic after all the title character has been through in the past few years. Bern sang a very different version that verged on the psychedelic, with banjo reverb and dissonant trumpet flourishes. This cool new arrangement, however, seemed to take away from the lyrics, making them less offensively funny, and were rushed through right to the end--a testament that the song just didn’t fit in with the night’s folk-bluegrass impression.


At the end of the night, the encore seemed to sum up not only the show but also Dan Bern. The group came down to the audience’s level and had them all participate in a lovely version of the traditional cowboy song “Blues Stay Away from Me.” But then Bern surprised everyone with a kitschy a capella tune about the 2010 Wimbledon tennis match between Isner and Mahut that lasted for eleven hours, because, well, “We thought it should be commemorated in song.” Like I said, when it comes to Dan Bern, the first impression always leads to a refreshing surprise.



Berkshire Living editorial assistant Abby Wood reviews music for







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