June 24, 2010
Dan Bern is usually a one-man story-telling machine. He tells stories in his music, and he tells stories between songs. Even Dan Bern’s nasally voice has a way of telling a story. But at Alexandria, Virginia’s The Birchmere, Bern (in an opening slot for Nashville folk singer Todd Snider,) was on stage backed by Common Rotation.
Along with Bern on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, there was a dobro player, a banjo-playing trumpeter and a saxophonist who doubled on the harmonica and occasionally banged along on toy xylophone. They all sang, and it was clear that while they could all play, they all also had a sense of humor to match Bern’s witty songwriting and the alternate world in which he resides.
I walked in as Dan Bern was introducing "another one" off of his baseball kick. He told the NoVa crowd that he had a special place in his heart for their Nationals. He had apparently tried to go and see the stadium that day, but was turned around. He opined that if he had been a rap star, he could have seen the field. Instead, he just drove up and made a u-turn. Then he sang "Joyce and Gallaraga," a funny song about a perfect game that never quite was.
Bern then talked about the difference between Nashville and his hometown of LA. He explained that in Nashville, someone has a good idea, turns it into a song and then plays it many, many times over the years. In contrast, in LA, if someone has an idea, they write a screenplay. They cast it and shoot it and they make a movie. But catering is expensive and it’s hard to follow through, so he took his idea and turned it into a two-and-a-half (that was really closer to ten) minute song about Osama bin Laden. The tune got cheers and laughs in all the right places from this nation’s capital’s crowd.
The song, called "Osama in Obamaland," is about bin Laden being caught and brought back to America. He escapes from prison and heads off to the only non-hostile spot in this great nation that he can think of – George W. Bush’s ranch. He learns how to look, speak and act like an American, moves to California, smokes dope and plays drums on the streets for money. He meets a sweet girl but his pillow talk costs him his anonymity, and she turns him in for the reward. He’s brought to court, is acquitted, and goes on to fight for interfaith education and equal rights for all. Another American Dream brought to life.
Bern closed out the short opening set with Merle Haggard’s "I’m a Lonesome Fugitive," a heartbreaking song with a somber melody about how being on the road keeps you lonely and isolated. On the breaks, Common Rotation pulled out their brass and played something straight from a Tijuana street band. It was bright and loud and was the perfect antidote to Bern’s mournful vocal melodies.
Bern was just the opener this night for Nashville folk-singer Todd Snider, but it would be unfair to say that all he did was warm up the crowd, Bern had started the evening right.