You ever done that fantasy gig line-up thing? Or the ultimate festival line-up, even? It’s kind of a boring habit of mine, when I’m too tired / bored / anxious to think about anything else. That and a fantasy Spurs line up which consists entirely of Robbie Keanes. When I do it I start with bands I missed because I was too young or stupid to go and see them before they split up – The Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr – or people I could never conceivably have seen – The Clash, Can, Joy Division etc. Then I fill in the bands I love and have seen; Blur, Pavement, The House of Love, PJ Harvey. Finally I end up with the two still-going bands who I’ve never seen and would, frankly, die to see. XTC haven’t played live since 1983 or something like that, and aren’t ever likely to do so. So I end up with the band who are – in my meaningless opinion – probably the finest on the planet right now – Silver Jews, who never started touring in the first place.
Except of course that, more than ten years into their career, they’ve started. They’ve just played a run of dates in the US and are coming over to the UK very shortly. And… I’m going to be away when they come. Unbelievable, but I don’t feel too bad as I had already assumed that I would never get to see them. And I figure, I’m gonna review ‘em anyway, something which would have been impossible a few years ago, but with the wonderful advent of MP3 blogs I’ve managed to download four full concerts from the tour, including what is officially the first ever Joos concert at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA on March 10th. And, well, it was stunning.
The reclusive, remarkable, drug and alcohol ravaged genius that is Jews mainman David C. Berman has always been a bit of enigma, refusing to play live, refusing to read his song lyrics at poetry readings (he’s the author of ‘Actual Air’, one of the finest collections of American poetry I’ve ever read), and sacking and reinstating Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich and Steve West on regular occasions. His most recent album, Tanglewood Numbers, saw most of them back, along with Will Oldham and his wife, Cassie, but on tour only Cassie and Bob make the line up – the latter only for a few, nostalgic numbers. So there’s no Malkmus. He’s barely missed however – the show is all about Berman, who apparently has to perform with his (extraordinary) lyrics on a music stand in front of him as he can’t remember them. And god, we’ve waited a long time to see him do this.
The outpouring of collective joy from the audience is immediately obvious the moment the band takes the stage. Berman’s voice, greeting the audience, is surprisingly nasal. “You wanted the jews, you got ‘em”, he announces. “This isn’t my speaking voice”, he continues, “but I know you don’t what it is, so I’m making you think this is it, fuck you”. Then he counts to four, hits his guitar and sings “In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection / slowly screwing my ways across Europe, they had to make a correction”. The audience wants to laugh but instead it whoops deliriously as the musics kicks in. The formula is set. Every lyric – “I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men’s room walls” – is met with hollers of approval. Is their another living musician who raises cheers with every other line? Finally the songs ratchets up to the point everyone is waiting for; Berman sings the pay-off “If you don’t want me, I promise not to linger / but before I go I got to ask you dear about that tan line on your ring-finger”. At which point, although I can’t vouch for the spines of the “real” audience, mine seems to explode in a tumult of tingles.
It’s by no means a practised performance; Berman’s voice is even flatter and less expressive than on record (but this is the man who once sang “all my favourite singers couldn’t sing”), and the band turn in an accomplished set shorn of Malkmus’s pyrotechnics. None of this matters at all, however – the sheer pleasure of finally hearing songs that have lived like friends for years kills all possibility of disappointment. And Berman is clearly a beguiling frontman – frequently quietening the band down to tell jokes, praise the audience and address good-natured heckles. The set itself is drawn in roughly equal measures from across the band’s five-album back catalogue. Berman says next year he’ll learn 15 different songs and come back.
In the meantime, he’s picked such glorious songs to play. Nastanovich – still the friendliest man in the world, by the sounds of things – comes out for an incredibly emotional run through of ‘Trains Across The Sea’, which unfurls like something heart-breaking by The Velvet Underground. “Half hours on Earth”, Berman sings, “What are they worth? I don’t know”. The song over, he notes, new to this, “No-one ever told me, I just found this out this week, that it sounds shitty on stage, like I thought it would sound as good as it does in your car, or at home. It sounds worse! How are you supposed to rock out, it sucks!”. It’s funny to think that this stuff is new to him.
Elsewhere, ‘New Orleans’ is lovely but the first time I miss Malkmus, and several songs from Tanglewood Numbers sound super, but it’s the classics that really sound amazing. ‘Dallas’ takes my breath away, alternately hilarious – “I passed out on the thirteenth floor / the CPR was so erotic”- and beautiful – “How d’you turn a billion steers / into buildings made of mirrors?”. Guitars chime melodiously around Berman as he begins to spin stories, addressing the crowd. It makes me burn with desire to visit Dallas, not an experience I’ve had before. “Sorry if I’m harsh on a song that means a lot to you”, he apologises afterwards. Hardly.
‘Horseleg Swastikas’ is equally fine. “And I wanna be like water if I can”, Berman croons, “cos water doesn’t give a damn”. The song quietens down for a piano break and Berman observes, “you know, I guess this has been a pretty good first concert. There’s been some screw-ups. But er, I only really started practising for the tour a few days ago. And I know you guys waited for a long time. I didn’t deserve to do that to you”. I think I know what he means.
‘Slow Education’ is another song packed with lyrics the crowd has waited a long time to hear him sing. “When God was young / he made the wind and the sun / and since then / it’s been a slow education / And you got that one idea again / the one about dying”. ‘Buckingham Rabbit’, from American Water closes the set and it’s worn-out sounding and euphoric, Berman having relented and okayed an encore he was determined not to do, getting Steve West – “an excellent human being” – on to drum. It’s another song which I associate so strongly with Malkmus that it’s impossible not to wish he was there, but the Joos do an outstanding job without him. “So the rent became whisky / then my life became risky”, Berman sings. Ain’t that the truth. It’s not long ago that Berman tried – and failed – to kill himself.
But it’s great to see/hear him in such good form. “You know, I’ve caught a lot of you guys looking at my wife tonight”, he jabs. As the guitars build and lead us out at the end of a remarkable set, a huge, warm cheer erupts from the crowd. “See you next year”, he mutters, oblivious to the fact that half of this crowd is probably intent on following him round the States for the next couple of weeks. And, yeah, it looks like it’ll have to be next year for me, David, but it’s worth waiting for I suspect. In the meantime, I get lovely Pavement flashbacks as Bob comes back out on stage to apologise that there’ll be no more music tonight and tell the crowd how beautiful they are. Still a gentleman after all these years.
Hear other dates from the tour here and here.