Singer-songwriter Dan Bern has been shrugging off the obvious comparisons for most of his career: on "Talkin' Woody, Bob, Bruce & Dan Blues," from his new Smartie Mine (available from www.dbhq.com or at Bern's concerts), he bangs away at an acoustic guitar and saws on a harmonica, spinning a tongue-in-cheek tale about how the legend of Bob Dylan visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital inspires him to scale the gates of Bruce Springsteen's estate, jam a thermometer in the Boss's mouth, and argue that he needs to anoint a successor too. To be sure, Bern owes a great deal to all three troubadors, yet he comes off less like another populist hero than the pop-culture freak next door. Some of his freshest and most hilarious songs observe the media mythography that's become a constant in our lives. On Smartie Mine's "Krautmeyer" he wonders if the Family would have followed Charles Manson's orders if they'd known his real last name was Krautmeyer, and suggests that Marilyn Manson change his stage name to Marilyn Krautmeyer. And on "Tiger Woods," the opener to his Ani DiFranco-produced major-label debut, Fifty Eggs (Sony/Work), he channel surfs from the size of his balls ("Big as pumpkins / Big as grapefruits / Yes sir") to the decline of Muhammad Ali to the story of a friend whose life went to hell as soon as he realized his lifelong dream of going down on Madonna. Bern's ballads can sound a lot like Elvis Costello's--his "Everybody's Baby" and "City of Models" could be outtakes from Trust--but he's not as searingly sarcastic. On "Oh Sister," from Fifty Eggs, he sings earnestly and convincingly of a sibling's guidance, asking, "Where would Willie Mays have been / Without Jackie Robinson / And who could say what I'd been / Without you to lead the way." Dan Bern may not be the voice of his generation--not yet, anyway--but his voice is new and startling, and that's a welcome thing anytime. The show is sold out. Friday, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Patricia Masisak.