I bought my Silver Jews ticket approximately three minutes after it went on sale. After twelve years and five albums, this was the band's first-ever tour, a momentous and unexpected event I wasn't about to miss. Even beyond their terrific music, I've always felt a special connection to the Jews. They got started at the University of Virginia, where I went to college, and while ninety percent of my campus embraced the Dave Matthews Band as Charlottesville's best homegrown act, I knew better. The only David that mattered was Berman.
When the night of the show finally arrived, I faced that ancient dilemma of the concertgoer: What time to get there? Catch the tailend of the second opening act? Midway through the first for the sake of seizing front row territory? Take in both acts and hope for the best? I went with the last option, feeling optimistic. The evening kicked off with local band Continuous Peasant, led by former Silver Jew keyboardist Chris Stroffolino. They were all right, basically fulfilling the traditional role of opening act: be good enough that people will listen and clap politely but not good enough that they'd see you on your own.
But then, oh then, everything went batshit. The next band, Monotonix, started setting up. Instead of bringing their equipment onstage, they put it against the stage, standing face-to-face with the audience. They were from Tel Aviv and spoke in Hebrew. Yonatan Gat stood so close I narrowly avoided getting hit with his guitar on multiple occasions. The singer, Ami Shalev, looked like a drugged-up Yakov Smirnoff. Whatever was about to happen here, it was going to be memorable.
And from the first note, it was. The two instrumentalists, Gat and drummer Ran Shimony, battered away at a sea of thrash and noise. Shalev, wasting no time, started throwing himself at the first semi-circled row of the audience. He was yelping into the microphone, the words unintelligible under the melodic cacophony. A few people in the crowd started headbanging along but many more seemed out of place. As Shalev climbed up anything he could climb up or hung from anything he could hang from, the looks on audience members' faces were a show unto themselves. The reactions alternated between confused, frightened, cautiously amused, overjoyed, disturbed, and a few that looked like they'd swallowed something poisonous.
Monotonix's desire to literally be in your face and their commitment to be as loud as possible reminded me of hardcore's heyday. Shalev's total disregard of his body (crowd surfing, stage diving, falling to and flailing on the floor, throwing himself against objects) was, for better or worse, punk down to its nihilistic essence. Trying to outdo Angus Andrew at his own game, he was intent on disconcerting the audience. And through it all, Gat and Shimony, glazed in sweat, kept cranking out the thunderous tunes. This was performance as performance art and rock as confrontation. No matter where you stood in the sharp divide (I bought a T-shirt if you're wondering), you wouldn't soon forget seeing Monotonix live.
And then it was time for the main event. We wailed in unison as Berman took the stage. In a red Fall T-shirt, he was tall, bearded and bony, with a few slicks of hair slitting down his forehead. His wife, backup vocalist and bassist, Cassie, smiled shyly. She was unprepared for the shouts of "We love you, Cassie," offering back a meek wave and saying, "Um... thank you." Berman, who doesn't have all that much more performing experience past his poetry reading, was more at ease, tossing out casual asides between songs. (At the outset, he informed us his instrument was from Guitar Center and that it was going back tomorrow.)
Highlights for me included "Time Will Break The World," "New Orleans," "Random Rules" despite or because of a flubbed key line, and closer "There Is A Place," all of which gained a rocking vibrance in their live arrangements. The set leaned a little too heavily on Tanglewood Numbers for my taste, while only wading into American Water. But overall, the catalogue was well-represented, with enough small picks to give the diehards their mouthalong moments. And it still felt slightly unbelievable to be hearing these songs live, to witness David Berman singing his singularly affecting poetry at all.
Berman seemed pretty happy during his set, which leads me to hope another Silver Jews tour will follow in the future. It's impressive to see a band with little road experience pull off a rousing show like they did. It'll be even cooler to see where Berman will go next as he continues expanding his range, both on record and on stage. For now though, the crowd settled for the brief encore, which included "Punks In The Beerlight." When he sang, "I love you to the max," we sang it back to him, grateful for the chance to share in the wild kindness for an evening.
* MP3: "I'm Going To Love The Hell Out Of You" - The Silver Jews from Tennessee EP [Buy it]* MP3: "Animal Shapes" - The Silver Jews from Tanglewood Numbers [Buy it] * MP3: "I Remember Me" - The Silver Jews from Bright Flight [Buy it]
* MP3: "Dragon Zoo" - Monotonix [Buy it]
* MP3: "Heartbeat" - Monotonix [Buy it]* MP3: "Summers and Autumns" - Monotonix [Buy it]* MP3: "Make Me Hurry" - Monotonix [Buy it]
* Band Website: Silver Jews* Band Website: Monotonix