On “Jerusalem”, the opening song of Dan Bern’s 1996 debut, Dog Boy Van, the prolific Iowa-born songwriter sang, “And if you must put me in a box/Make sure it’s a big box.” Some 14 years, 17 records, and several hundred songs later, these words seem remarkably predictive, because nobody has quite found a box big enough to fit Dan Bern in. As a songwriter, he’s equal parts Woody Guthrie, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., sex therapist, cultural correspondent, preschool teacher, messiah (self-proclaimed), and baseball fan, and that’s only scratching the surface. His live shows—an entertaining and offbeat amalgamation of these personas—are as close as fans ever really get to the complete Dan Bern experience. Live in Los Angeles, taped at the M Bar in Hollywood one evening last September, is his first official live release and attempts to pack more sides of Dan Bern onto a single record than previously thought possible.
Bern opens the night alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica—a style that has always suited him well—and plays three of his longtime staples. With a trash-talking sneer, he boasts about having balls “big as grapefruits” and “big as pumpkins” on the in-your-face “Tiger Woods”. (Whether he’s being literal or figurative about his testicular endowment is up in the air, but it’s the type of song that tends to weed out those who probably won’t get Bern from those who absolutely do or might by night’s end.) He follows with a beautiful rendition of the rollicking “Chelsea Hotel”, which works perfectly with his nasally, country-tinged voice (think a young Dylan). “God Says No” places Bern on the edge of a town asking God to send him back in time to save Kurt Cobain, bring down Hitler, and spare Christ from the cross. In the end, his requests are denied by God, and he comes to terms with the limitations that time and mortality place on us. It’s plaintive and moving in an unlikely way, and it’s also an example of how Bern often incorporates names, places, and history into his songs rather than relying upon the typical emotional abstractions found in pop music.
After the crowd settles in with a few straightforward (for Bern anyway) pop songs, he launches into a series of the type of comedic, cultural commentaries that only Dan Bern could write. On “Most American Men”, Bern hilariously muses about what’s on the mind of his generation of American males. Should he be taking Viagra just to stay competitive? What needs to be done about Somalia, and where is Somalia? (“Or for that matter, where’s Rhode Island?”) And he openly admits that his “morals are mostly determined by whomever [he’s] sleeping with.” But Bern doesn’t let the audience get away with just laughing along. He leads them in a “non-optional sing-along” during “Fascist”, in which the crowd chants, “It’s the fascist in me” between Bern’s gripes about daily encounters with his fellow citizens. On “Jack Kramer Wood Racket”, he plays choral conductor, stopping mid-song to organize the guys and ladies of the audience into surprisingly melodic backing groups. Getting to hear the audience participation loud and clear throughout Live in Los Angeles—an element often lost in live recordings—is definitely part of the record’s appeal.
Bern is later joined by Los Angeles-based folk-pop group Common Rotation and an assortment of other friends on several numbers, including two of the record’s most memorable performances. Common Rotation perfectly backs Bern on the gorgeous, mid-tempo “The Golden Voice of Vin Scully”, which features Bern sharing vocal duties with several others. “Sometimes I feel almost out of range,” sings Common Rotation’s Adam Busch, “I head south of the valley, and I pick up the game/I pull off the road, jump out of my lane/And lean against the hood, it’s still hot from the drive/Trees fade out in the black of the night/Sometimes it don’t hardly seem worth the fight/But at least tonight I get to hear the golden voice of Vin Scully.” However, the most striking part of the song actually comes after the final chorus. The band continues to play, as Bern begins to impersonate Scully doing the play-by-play of a Dodger game from August 4, 1965, in which Sandy Koufax is pitching. The band’s sound, particularly Jordan Katz’s horn, comes across like the roar of a baseball crowd backing Bern’s play call. It’s one of the more innovative live performances I’ve ever heard and fittingly concludes with the music ending abruptly and Bern remarking, “The mound tonight at Dodger Stadium must be the loneliest place in the world.”
The next song, “Osama in Obamaland”, is another one that only Bern could write. Common Rotation bounces along behind Bern’s warm, acoustic strumming, as he starts into the hypothetical story of how Osama bin Laden was captured only to escape and go on the lam in the United States. The facetious tale includes Osama hiring a Jewish lawyer named Shapiro, making an excursion to George W. Bush’s ranch in Houston, taking a job at KFC, and even becoming a drummer for a band on weekends. Bern sings, “He found himself on a street corner in Hoboken, New Jersey/And he started heading south/He knew he better drop that accent pretty quick/Or they’d catch him when he opened up his mouth.” The story ends with Osama moving to Pittsburgh, studying law, and becoming a priest, which leads to a thousand years of peace in the Middle East. I’m not sure if I’m ready to send Bern to peace talks anytime soon, but “Osama in Obamaland” is probably his funniest topical song since “Talkin’ Al Kida Blues”.
For the show’s home stretch, Bern returns to the stage the way he started: alone with a mic, guitar, and harmonica. He dials up a few songs from his earlier albums. “Too Late to Die Young”, which recalls the deaths of icons like Elvis, James Dean, and Roberto Clemente, sounds as vibrant as ever, while songs in a similar pop culture vein like “Wasteland” and “Marilyn”, the latter of which imagines what life would have been like if Marilyn Monroe had married Henry Miller instead of Arthur Miller, don’t resonate as well on this particular evening. Bern strums out an achingly beautiful version of “Albuquerque Lullaby”, on which he implores, “Don’t let your heart get broken by this world.” However, the night ends with a laugh rather than a tear. “The Fifth Beatle” once again showcases Bern’s revisionist history and depicts what things would have been like—complete with spot-on impressions—had musicians like Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Kurt Cobain joined the lads from Liverpool. One of the funnier moments is when Bern’s John Lennon battles for creative control with Bern’s Bruce Springsteen and says, “You’re not the boss of me, get your own fucking band.”
If you do have to try and squeeze Dan Bern into a box, Live in Los Angeles suggests that the best type would be one with a mic, a stage, and a crowd willing to be taken on a beautiful, and often usual, ride. This live taping remarkably manages to fit all of Dan Bern into a single evening and onto a single record. Well, most of Dan Bern anyway.