Talking Blues Music With a Message

Dan Bern performed his social commentary talking blues style from his Regent Street album at City Winery last week. Anthony Da Costa (left) provided back up guitar.

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — Dan Bern’s early heroes were people like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie – the songs that were a bit of poetry, a bit of political criticism and sometimes humor. He performed songs that were both musically satisfying and lyrics that pack a punch at the City Winery last week.

Bern’s voice is reminiscent of early Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello where lyrics take center stage in a style called “talking blues.” His hard driving guitar chords were interwoven with expert Telecaster or baritone electric guitar back up by the talented Anthony Da Costa – a Nashville based musician who started covering Dan Bern tunes when he was 14.  Eventually the two met and Bern asked Da Costa to join him on some of his sets on this tour.

Bern’s song “Hey Tiger Woods” is a letter to the sports icon asking why he did not turn out to be a “Gandhi” styled leader. “Do you remember when your Dad said you’d change the world and how you’d be a leader maybe like Gandhi? I’m thinking maybe you could actually be like Gandhi. Like people are over whatever you did — like it wasn’t as bad as Kobe. Now look how everybody loves Kobe. And you’re lots more famous than Kobe.”

The more biting song which Bern said was a “sanity song” — “Take the Guns Away” is a wrenching plea for those who are sick of reading about the ‘lone gunman’ who takes out his anger with mass murder. “I don’t want to retrace his steps or read his tenth-grade journal. I don’t need your prayers unless your gonna do something about it. I don’t need his girlfriend’s cell phone records.”

His song “American Without the People” paints a picture of a nation that sells out to corporate interests. “I will zero out accounts and let the Chinese have our launch sites and feed the natives’ dirty mouths. . . . I will seek no new alliance unless it brings me gold. I will shift and hide and camouflage. Buy new friends and spurn the old. Find answers in the shadows and the oceans plunder deep.” 

Bern’s acknowledged his Lithuanian Jewish roots in earlier album tours when he started calling his back-up musicians the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy or IJBC. This name, Bern said was a tribute to Dick Gregory’s book “Nigger.” Bern’s City Winery performance however had only Da Costa’s masterful back up. Da Costa also had a chance to perform two original songs, showcasing his fine vocals as well as his guitar.

Bern’s songs “Jerusalem,” “Marilyn,” and an earlier song dedicated to the golf champion “Tiger Woods” have beenamong his most popular. His current album release “Regent Street” adds some very strong work to his catalog of 25 albums. He has toured with Ani Di Franco and written original songs for the films “Walk Hard—The Dewey Cox Story” and “Get Him to the Greek,” as well as the 15-song soundtrack for “Everett Ruess, Wilderness Song,” a documentary produced by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

If you like Dylan style talking blues music where classical melodic structure takes a back seat to hard driving rhythm and lyrics, Dan Bern is the man making relevant critiques of our current political and cultural landscape.

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