David Berman’s voice dominates the six records that he has released under the once-tattering banner of the Silver Jews. The baritone pulls tension across the loose ends of the Joos’ fall-apart country, binding everything together and sounding for the life of it like the closing of an industrial zipper. And the words that that voice forms! Berman’s lyrics — collages of poetry, not-so-traditional story songs, and the occasional confession — demand constant attention, almost to the point that it seems risky to put him in a live setting, where vocals mixes are often crushed underfoot by the constant murmur of concertgoers.
Friday night’s show at Chicago’s Metro — only the group’s 100th in its twenty-year history — was nothing if not a showcase for Berman, a victory lap after the place past the blues. Former Pavement noisemaker and Joos collaborator Bob Nastanovich showed up to deliver a passionate speech about how proud he was of David before lurching into a version of “New Orleans” that was easily as sloppy as its Starlite Walker counterpart. Nastanovich would reappear later to howl on a white-hot version of “Punks in the Beerlight.”
For his part, Berman is an exceptionally compelling frontman. Reading the setlist off of a styrofoam plate, he dedicated a good third of the tracks to audience members, announced an opportunity to intern at Drag City Records, and leaned back-to-back with his bass-playing wife, Cassie, at one point giving her a tiny peck between songs. The interaction between David and Cassie is worth the cover charge alone; watching him sing “Tennessee” into her smiling gaze is worth whatever else.
None of that, though, does justice to how tight the Joos are as a live band. They were just as convincing pumping hot gas into the slack-country tracks from this summer’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea as they were strip-mining “Random Rules” and “Smith and Jones Forever” as their leader leaned on his mic stand. Berman even strummed along to “Punks in the Beerlight” while the microphone rested in the crook of his arm, his shouts of “I loved you to the max” echoing from his elbows. The Joos looked every bit like Nashville all-stars in their matching suits and red cowboy shirts, a sly wink to the city they call home.
For all intents and purposes, the Silver Jews are what Nashville should want right now. It does claim to be a city of songwriters and entertainers, after all, even if its actions belie that belief. The songs that Berman writes are essentially country songs; “San Francisco B.C.” finds its sonic forebear in the lighter shades of Bobby Bare Jr.’s oddball stories and the sparkle of guitars on “What Is Not But Could Be If” is practically AM Country Gold. For now, though, and hopefully for a long time, the Joos have a home on the road, even if it’s not in the bootlight of the honky tonks. words/ m. garner