Last Friday, Dan Bern fans packed into Berbati’s Pan to hear thesinger/songwriter aim his guitar at the Bush administration and tryto change the world.
OK, so he may not have changed the world, but he did make a barfull of liberals feel empowered and unified.
Bush has done more for music than solidify Toby Keith’s careerwith songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The AngryAmerican).” His legacy will also include the resurgence of protestmusic, and Dan Bern is on the front lines. Bern, currently on his”Music to Beat Bush By” tour, has been on the road since theRepublican Convention, hoping to engage audiences with his new cropof anti-Bush and anti-war songs.
Chris Chandler opened the show with his coffee-shop-poetry-stylemusic. Chandler is a clear link between political poetry and thereemergence of the protest song, and whether you like his musicprobably depends on how you feel about open-mic poetry. Bern openedhis set with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Just the Facts, Ma’am,”which set the tone for the evening and showed his willingness towear his influences on his sleeve.
The audience was eager to stay involved – a mark of protestmusic – even during the middle of Bern’s set, where he perused hisearly catalogue for apolitical sing-a-longs like “Marilyn.” Theycheered whenever he insulted Bush or dropped names like AniDifranco, but seemed disengaged intellectually.
In the end, it felt like Dan Bern was affecting his values, orat least hadn’t thought them through. On songs like “President,”where he muses on what he would do if he were president, Bernseemed out of touch with his audience.
After stating that he would bring U.S. troops home fromAfghanistan and Iraq he sang “I was tempted to say ‘I’m sorry /We’ll rebuild you with money and men’ / But I just said, ‘You’re onyour own / And don’t fuck with us again,'” which doesn’t sound sodifferent from the jingoistic mantra of Mr. Keith. In his newanthem “Bush Must Be Defeated,” Bern seems more concerned withrepeating the title refrain and exhaustively rhyming “defeated,”than forming a cogent argument – a task that would not only beeasy, but also much more powerful.
The tragedy here is that protest music has the potential to beuplifting and inspiring, like Woody Guthrie, but in Dan Bern’shands it becomes dogmatic and empty.