MANHATTAN, NY—Dan Bern blew into New York City late on Aug. 25 and hit the ground running with a taught, raw and stirring solo acoustic show at City Winery. It was here in the fading days of late summer that his autumn in the big town had begun. The prolific singer-songwriter, painter, movie music composer and author will be hanging around town for the first time in nearly a decade for the entire season and will be playing in New York, New Jersey, Philly and Beantown, trying out brand new material and bringing his beloved musical tales of joy, woe and plenty of tongue-in-cheek playfulness.
“I’m gonna stay awhile,” he told me earlier that day, the sounds of the road out the car windows clearly audible through the crackle of the cell phone reception. “I’m close and I’m rollin’ in to stay awhile.”
The sizable room was packed to the rafters as rumors of Prince planning an impromptu midnight show buzzed through the crowd. Bern confirmed the heightened fervor of the evening’s performance when he shuffled on stage at merely one minute past seven and tore into a roaring version of the standard “Freight Train Blues,” his voice strong, the wheeze of the harmonica bleeding through the bustle of the waitresses and the echoing chatter of the locals.
Soon the lights dimmed and Bern was running through his catalog with deft precision, a pro’s pro muscled up and stream-lined, knowing his stay in New York and all the stages and rooms he’s kicked around many times before would expect it.
The Sunday crowd was primed and howled at each of Bern’s signature stage jibes, especially the one about taking a job as a cabbie to fund the cost of camping out in NYC. Then, just as the laughter waned, he was suddenly playing the haunting “Lithuania,” a song I had only seen him perform once in a hotel room on the Lower East Side. The lyrics, diving and soaring, hit hard at the horrors of family having been cut down in the Holocaust set against the airy dreamer tooling down a Pacific Coast Highway in an “elegy to the automobile.”
Much of his repertoire was on display; a blistering tour through the epic “Wasteland” and a new one, “I Still Wanna Fuck Shit Up,” which Bern would tell me a few weeks later, is his resurrection from a sudden bout with apathy. The songs sounded right and true and each were played with a purpose I had not seen from him in years.
One gets the feeling Bern is playing with time now. He has done this before and he wants to keep doing it, but it must be at his level and his passion. It is this type of performance Bern has delivered time and again since the mid-‘90s when his talking-folk ramble, “Jerusalem,” showed all the promise of the prose poem; a Beat meets Hokey ode to the restless sprit. And, oh yeah, Bern played that too, and will play it when you come out and see him on this trip.
Because this is the trip you have to see and hear Dan Bern. He has come with his guitar, that powerfully emotive voice, a mouth harp and a deep volume of songs from the road to God to women and the politics of social disorder, all wonderfully cluttered with humor and pathos. Mostly, he has come with a purpose; focused and coiled.
Yes, if City Winery in late summer made any statement, it was this: Come see Dan Bern play this autumn in New York.