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I’m Gonna Love the Hell Out of You

Silver Jews, March 22, Ottobar

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 3/29/2006

David Berman isn’t the world’s most flamboyant frontman. He formed the Silver Jews nearly 17 years ago with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, and in that time he’s been considered a recluse even on indie rock’s retiring terms. Tonight, Berman perched stiffly onstage, stooped and blinking, wiping sweat from his brow, occasionally turning away from the microphone to rifle through lyric sheets, reinserting a wayward contact lens, concentrating on executing a guitar passage, tweaking his amplifier. His appearance—neat beard, black suit jacket, and red button-down shirt—muttered “wayward Amish farmer,” and his performance screamed discomfort, threatening to wilt before our very eyes under the Ottobar’s hot red lights.

A crack live band of studio Jews backed him, and it certainly delivered the dry-whiskey goods, breathing fiery life into Berman’s hungover ruminations—a bit too well, in fact, running roughshod over Berman’s weak, tone-deaf vocals and those of his regal, Southern-drawling wife, bassist Cassie Berman. Between songs he offered bewildering banter—“I was gonna bring some raspberry jelly to Baltimore, the whole city”—which, while in keeping with his deadpan, Jack Handy-on-’ludes persona, bounced off the sold-out audience.

Guess what? No one cared. Not the couple slow dancing for the duration. Not the fan who lobbed Berman a St. John’s College T-shirt. Not the blow-hard who bellowed either “David rules!” or “Random rules!” or both. Not the phalanx of amateur shutterbugs overloading their digital memory cards. Not the Ben Gibbard look-alike who, cocking his arm near the end of “How to Rent a Room,” faltered somewhat when Berman inexplicably failed to complete the song’s defeated, devastating final couplet—“Grant me one last wish/ Life should mean a lot less than this”—then pumped his fist anyway.

No one cared because, prior to this tour, the total number of shows the Jews have performed since forming could be counted on one’s fingers and toes, kept off the road by Berman’s anti-tour stance and lack of confidence in the live viability of his songs. Health and substance-abuse problems were additional mitigating factors that generated medical bills that finally necessitated taking his music to the people.

And the people hooted when, before laying into “Inside the Golden Days of Missing You,” Berman told them, “I know you guys bought these tickets a long time ago, so I know you’re hard-core.” They howled when original Jews drummer Nastanovich took the kit for the bobbing, mellow “Trains Across the Sea” and “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down,” a rowdy, romping David and Cassie duet from 2005’s unusually rocking Tanglewood Numbers.

Organist/keyboard player Tony Crow lent the forlorn “Horseleg Swastikas” a newfound swing, and all night long guitarist Peyton Pinkerton spun out amazing, stained-glass leads that Malkmus wasn’t there to provide. But Berman was the focal point, and a lack of natural showmanship couldn’t obscure his affection for his audience. He transcended awkwardness through small gestures—proffering a hand while singing the “tan line on your ring finger” line from “Random Rules,” allowing a female fan to belt out another song’s chorus. When they ended their encore with the pummeling, bruising “Punks in the Beerlight,” Berman’s ’80s-gnarly snarling shouts—“I love you to THE MAX/ I love you to THE MAX”—were naked in their sincerity.

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