"I always wanted to go out on top," David Berman, the gloriously rumpled beanpole frontman of the Silver Jews, mumbled in the deadest of deadpans. "I guess this works, too."
A little back story: Berman said this from the stage of the Volcano Room, a hermetic pocket of space located 333 feet below the surface of the earth at the Cumberland Caverns in tiny McMinnville, Tennessee. The room was formed some 3.5 million years ago, the product of water slowly pounding gypsum rock into submission. It then went undiscovered for a few millennia, until a few enterprising spelunkers decided it would be an ideal place to hold bluegrass revues. They built a stage, imported a pipe organ, hung a chandelier and set up some picnic tables.
A couple of weeks ago, Berman declared that the room would be the site of the last-ever Silver Jews show (perhaps because it doubles as a rather nifty metaphor for the band's entire underground existence), saying he was quitting music to focus on "screenwriting or muckraking." It was an announcement that sent die-hard fans scrambling to find tickets, flights and rental cars, and one which brings us to this past Saturday.
Billed as a celebration/funeral for the band (introduced as "the late, great Silver Jews"), the Cumberland Caverns gig saw them perform just 15 songs — a de facto greatest-hits set — as selected by the notoriously stage-shy Berman himself. It was equal parts morose and exuberant, often somber, sometimes sweet and always self-effacing, not to mention a tad bit shambolic. Sort of like every moment of the Jews' 20-year semi-career.
Decked out in matching ensembles — jet-black suits, blood-red shirts (though Berman's was more gingham-y) — the Jews took the stage to the echoed whoops of the roughly 300 who managed to score tickets (and actually find the Cavern). Berman led off with a grateful speech that managed to incorporate his former job as a janitor, popcorn theft and the Loews movie theater chain. Then the band was off and galloping, plunking its way through "We Are Real," a standout from 1998's American Water.
Over the next hour, Berman fidgeted and fussed his way through the Jews' entire discography, frequently singing with eyes shut and hands thrust skyward. He poked and pulled at his in-ear device, bent chords out of his guitar (except for when the strap broke and the guitar fell off him), cracked jokes with the audience and traded licks — and knowing glances — with his wife, bassist Cassie Berman.
He was joined onstage by former Pavement drummer/ founding Jews drummer Bob Nastanovich for a gleefully sloppy take on "Trains Across the Sea," and by Nashville outsider Bobby Bare Jr. on "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You." Cassie Berman sang the crystal-clear choruses on "Suffering Jukebox" (from last year's Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea) and on a show-stopping version of "Tennessee" (from 2001's Bright Flight). Songs like "How to Rent a Room," "Random Rules" and "Room Games & Diamond Rain" all sparkled like a rumpled rhinestone suit, benefitting from Berman's assembled five-piece backing band. There was a familial vibe that percolated through the entire set.
Of course, it bears mentioning that there was one family member who didn't show: Pavement's Steve Malkmus, who played on the Jews' earliest (and some say best) albums. There was no explanation given as to why he decided not to make the trip to Tennessee, but there was no denying that his whinging solos and wiry falsetto were missed on most of the songs Berman chose to play from Water.
That included set-closer "Smith & Jones Forever," which, if Berman is a man of his word, will be the last song the Silver Jews ever perform. On the album, Berman and Malkmus famously trade vocals and hooks, telling the story of a pair of wayward bandits "holding up their trousers with extension cords." Deep in the Cavern on Saturday, it was just Berman doing the singing, but for a lyricist (and author) known for trafficking heavily in the symbolic, one couldn't help feeling that this was his way of noting that perhaps he and Malkmus will always be linked, that the Silver Jews will never be seen as more than a Pavement side project, and that Berman is (mostly) fine with that legacy.
But maybe that's reading too much into things, because this was Berman's moment. And as the final notes of "Smith & Jones" were still bouncing around the Cavern, he thanked the crowd again, made a halfhearted attempt at a bow (showmanship was never his strong suit) and vanished backstage. A minute later he reappeared and began walking through the crowd, embracing everyone in his path, telling each person, "Thank you."
Photos were snapped. Backs were slapped. A few tears were shed. It was a little bit corny, a little bit amazing. Berman looked elated and exhausted. Everyone did. But then it was over, and so we all ascended 300 feet back into the darkening Tennessee night.