At times, singer-songwriter Dan Bern's concert at the Ash Grove on Tuesday was like a Denis Leary rant set to music. Caustic, sardonic, irreverent and clever, Bern skewered cultural icons and conventions with punch lines that snuck up behind you and kicked you in the head.
Celebrating the release of his debut album, "Dan Bern," the Iowa native drew hearty laughs and applause from the friendly, industry-heavy crowd on his first of two nights at the club as he carved up a parade of sacred cows, from Christ to Kennedy to Cobain.
Dying--or peaking--too soon and being overshadowed by one's own legend were dominant themes. Marilyn Monroe is a particular obsession, turning up in several songs, including "Marilyn," in which he wonders how the actress' life would have been different if she'd married author Henry Miller instead of playwright Arthur Miller. (She may have died young anyway, but she would have had more fun, Bern suggests.)
The problem is that the music it's all set to is Bob Dylan's. And the voice it's sung in is Dylan's too. To be fair, Bern's speaking voice is a natural Midwestern nasal, so the singing style isn't entirely forced. And Bern is much more sentimental and open than Dylan--or Leary, for that matter. His verbal brutality is not indiscriminate, and is often tempered with genuine warmth.
But there's no getting around the Dylanism distraction. Beck has earned the perhaps over-used tag as the Dylan of the '90s, simply because he has staked out new ground and maintained an individual mystique. Bern fails in that regard, simply because he has not.