On Jerusalem, the opening song of Dan Berns 1996 debut, Dog Boy Van, the prolific Iowa-born songwriter sang, And if you must put me in a box/Make sure its 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, hes equal parts Woody Guthrie, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., sex therapist, cultural correspondent, preschool teacher, messiah (self-proclaimed), and baseball fan, and thats only scratching the surface. His live showsan entertaining and offbeat amalgamation of these personasare 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 harmonicaa style that has always suited him welland 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 hes being literal or figurative about his testicular endowment is up in the air, but its the type of song that tends to weed out those who probably wont get Bern from those who absolutely do or might by nights 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. Its plaintive and moving in an unlikely way, and its 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 whats 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, wheres Rhode Island?) And he openly admits that his morals are mostly determined by whomever [hes] sleeping with. But Bern doesnt 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, Its the fascist in me between Berns 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 Angelesan element often lost in live recordingsis definitely part of the records 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 records 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 Rotations 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, its still hot from the drive/Trees fade out in the black of the night/Sometimes it dont 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 bands sound, particularly Jordan Katzs horn, comes across like the roar of a baseball crowd backing Berns play call. Its one of the more innovative live performances Ive 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 Berns 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. Bushs 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 theyd 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. Im not sure if Im 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 shows 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, dont resonate as well on this particular evening. Bern strums out an achingly beautiful version of Albuquerque Lullaby, on which he implores, Dont 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 Berns revisionist history and depicts what things would have been likecomplete with spot-on impressionshad musicians like Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Kurt Cobain joined the lads from Liverpool. One of the funnier moments is when Berns John Lennon battles for creative control with Berns Bruce Springsteen and says, Youre 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.