Tuesday, August 01, 2006

There Will Be Lateness: Silver Jews at the Duck Room - July 28, 2006

I was enjoying my rock star seating. Comfortably perched at a table immediately stage left with my brother and his girlfriend, all three of us were intaking drinks and gloating because of our table location in anticipation of the Silver Jews' first-ever concert in St. Louis. After over 15 years as mostly studio-only band, David Berman and company were on the road for their first (and possibly only) series of live performances. And we were there.

The Duck Room, so named because of the various duck statues, pictures, and posters that line it, was at full capacity. The small venue, really nothing more than a dingy basement complete with gray concrete walls and minimal lighting, buzzed with a noticeable anticipation.

The Silver Jews took the stage shortly after 10 pm. The opening chords of "Dallas" began, loud and clear from the speaker directly in front of us. Slowly, Berman stepped to the microphone and began to sign.

Except we couldn't hear a single word. His mouth was moving; of that we were all sure. But Berman had either decided to mime the words or we were more twisted from the booze that we thought. How much had we drank? Had the bartender switched our Schlafly for something far more sinister? Why did he snicker when he said "Enjoy your drink?" Had it ruined our ears? I threw a panicked look at my brother. His girlfriend, already skeptical of the concert-going experience and our wild boasting of the Silver Jews' music, gave him a stare that suggested she was not amused and that his night might be ending earlier than expected.

And then we noticed the speaker. In our idiot desire to get the best possible seat with an unobstructed view, we failed to realize we had selected a table whose main accessory, other than a dirty ashtray, was one of the Duck Room's PA speakers. The rhythm guitar was coming in loud and clear though. And it nicely complimented the increasing ringing in my ears.

Now there are two types of concertgoers: table people and pit people. And I am a table person. Give me own space, the option to sit or stand, dance or watch, drink or abstain. I am not a pit person. A pit person is a whole different creature. A pit person usually prefers to wedge like a sardine as close to the stage as possible, pogo or perform any number of other awkward, pelvic, whitey-boy thrusts, and throw fingers in the air in the classic Heavy Metal V. In the concert world, a table person is a lamb and a pit person is a viper. A viper who throws elbows.

But we were desperate. The three table-dwelling and slightly intoxicated lambs would have to take their chances among the vipers. With the quiet desperation and determination of someone about to do the unthinkable, we grabbed our $15 Silver Jews shirts and $12 pitcher of beer, and threw ourselves into the throng.

The sound was perfect, a beautiful blend of country, rock, and folk, all pulled together by Berman's ragged, worn voice. The vocals were clear and upfront, with nice separation between the guitars, drums, and keyboards. We had to constantly duck and weave for a clear view of the stage, but the sound was there and the band was on. For the next hour, we stood among the crazies, the drunks, and the occasional middle-aged married couple making out, and witnessed a truly once in a lifetime performance.

By now Berman's struggles with suicide attempts, substance abuse, and fear of microphones (if you believe the stories) are well known in the indie music world. As Berman stood center stage, matted black hair and Doug Martsch-style beard, he seemed relaxed and perhaps even enjoying the dim spotlight. Never straying far from the microphone and often singing with his eyes closed, Berman's lyrics took on the weight and power of a man who has lived through the pitfalls and joys described in his songs. And even if he wasn't completely relaxed onstage, there was little evidence of his stage freight and faulty memory (and no lyrics book to be seen).

These were not fabricated tales written by an anonymous Top 40 hack and sung by an empty-headed pop princess. These were songs of often brutal directness and ugly emotions, yet they never strayed far from the poetic and strangely beautiful. Songs that could range from the sinister ("two tickets to a midnight execution," from "Smith and Jones Forever"), to the hilarious ("My ex-wife's living in the suburbs with her guru and her mom"), to the sordid (from perhaps Berman's best song, "Random Rules"). Berman sang every word as if he had lived it. And in many cases I suspect he has.

The highlight of the show, however, was the closing song, "There Is A Place." Like the version on Tanglewood Numbers, the song built slowly, starting with a languid guitar behind Berman's painful lyrics. When Berman began to quietly sing about that place past the blues he'd seen, the crowd seemed to soften a bit. Then the music began to build, guitars and drums rolling in like lightning. The song took a turn toward the destructive. "There grew a desert in my mind/I took a hammer to it all." Berman repeated over and over as the drums and guitars built and built, louder and louder, Berman sounding like a deranged prophet. And just as suddenly, the frantic playing stopped, a brief silence, and the musicians floated back into the calm of the song.

Berman left the stage before the song was over. A quick smile, a waive to the crowd, and he was gone, leaving the band to end the show and close out one of the most memorable indie music shows in St. Louis in recent memory. As the house lights came up, most of the crowd didn't move. My brother gave me his patented serious nod, the true sign of approval from a music junkie who's seen dozens of concerts.

No rush for the exits tonight. Not on this night, when no one wanted the dust to settle or the music to stop. And if the Silver Jews never tour again, that is fine with me. Those of us in attendance will remember that for one furious hour at a basement venue located below a burger joint, the Silver Jews provided an inspiring mixture of noise and melody, calm and anger. And that is enough.

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