Songs for an empty house
Dan Cohen and Near Death Experience entombed at Moxie’s
Local singer-songwriter Dan Cohen is one of those rare artists whose compulsion to communicate the inner truth of his passage through this mortal coil is balanced on a razor’s edge between the inevitable horrors of mortal physicality and the undeniable seduction of natural beauty. He has, in other words, a sublimely deadpan sense of humor tempered by a graciously stoic though never complacent acceptance of the hand that Fate deals him.
And Fate, that most fickle of mistresses, wasn’t being particularly kind last Friday evening.
Arriving at Moxie’s just as the band was putting the finishing touches on its stage set-up, I was slightly dismayed, but not very surprised, to find myself sharing the space with only two other people and a lovely row of colorful, Costa Rica-inspired paintings by Jan Allenspach. But Moxie’s has a nice selection of beers, so I selected one and settled in to enjoy the “private reserve,” as Cohen put it after the show.
Having waited a courteous amount of time for late-comers to blow in, Cohen took the stage solo with his acoustic guitar, and, after introducing himself as Dan Cohen’s double—because the real Dan Cohen was at home in Paradise watching Sábado Gigante—played a song that revisited one of his perennial topics: Stone Ridge Estates, a Paradise retirement community that holds a peculiar fascination for Cohen, located as it is just across the road from a picturesque cemetery full of granite tombstones shaded by trees bearing the last autumn leaves.
With the tone thus set for the evening’s performance, Cohen called up his keyboard accompanist Dave Hurst to embellish the next song, “Suicide,” on OmniChord, a vintage instrument from the dawn of digital technology that has a twinkly and totally phony electronic sound. The song is in many ways the distillation of Cohen’s blend of humor and morbidity; alternating verses are sung in a bizarre, cartoonish falsetto and a soothingly reassuring baritone and extol the virtues of making that final decision. Including the ultimate good-time rock & roll cliché, “Everything’s gonna be alright,” along with a “doot-doot-doot-dee-doot” refrain, the song rises to goofy heights of psychedelia.
Having provided the ultimate warm-up act—himself—Cohen called up the rest of Near Death Experience, former Brut Max bassist Snake and the aforementioned Hurst, for the rest of the unfortunately abbreviated concert. And make no mistake about it, this is one of the most proficient back-up units in town. On the aptly titled opening number, “Nobody Showed,” Hurst brocaded the simple melody with a soothingly plodding church organ melody, while Snake, clad in beatnik regalia, provided a gracefully dissonant stand-up-bass line.
The rest of the set lived up to the high standards set by the first song. “Gargoyle” is probably one of the most finely wrought symbolic self-portraits of an artist since Vincent Van Gogh chronicled his inner turmoil through thickly troweled-on pigments. And the galloping “Thin White Line,” with its finely perceived observations of that “two-headed baby called duality” is surely one of the best exhortations to the Western word to “make up your mind” that has ever been framed in the form of a pleasant-sounding pop song.
For diehard Cohen fans the night’s version of “Rigor Mortis on the Ridge,” with its dirgey invocation of “poodles sniffin’ in the dirt,” felt like hearing a greatest hit from Bruce Springsteen or Roy Orbison. The other couple of tunes that the Moxie’s management allowed Cohen and Company to play before calling it quits for the night were also impressive, especially a brand-new one titled “Sweltering in the Groove,” which, to this listener anyway, evoked the image of Bela Lugosi clowning in minstrel show blackface with drawn-on fangs overlapping whited-out lips. Weird and funny.
A set-closing tune dedicated to the late John Lennon, embellished with a typically abstract Cohen guitar solo, sent all four of us audience members forth with an evening’s worth of food for thought.