I saw David Berkeley play a short set at SXSW this year, and even though he claimed it was his worst show of the festival, it was enough to convince me that he would be a good fit for the basement. Of course, knowing that he’d been featured on This American Life certainly didn’t hurt either. Berkeley was joined tonight by guitarist Bill Titus whose dry sense of humor made an impression from the moment they arrived. His guitar playing impressed from the moment he plugged in. Berkeley’s voice is soulful and pretty, and his songs have an almost ethereal quality. I had listened to previous record Some Kind of Cure more than his new release The Fire in my Head, and while both are quite good, it was the songs from the former that really stood out for me tonight. He introduced “George Square” by asking if anyone had been to Scotland. I had, and had been to Glasgow on that trip, but I didn’t recall the Square of the title. I asked if it was the one with the statue that was perennially wearing a traffic cone. In fact, that was the Wellington statue in front of the art museum there. The song came about when one fan told him that he should write a song about that square since he’d written one about Times Square. “That turned out about as well as you can imagine,” he joked, but in fact it is one of his most memorable songs. Maybe there will be more songs about squares in his future.
The new record was inspired by his move to New Mexico and the songs are sparser as if the dry heat had evaporated everything that wasn’t essential. He also read an excerpt from his book 140 Goats & a Guitar, each of which has to do with a song on his previous record. He’s an observant and slyly funny writer; I’m kicking myself for not getting a copy. The story he read had to do with his tendency to try to push a tank of gas as far as it will go, and his related predisposition to running out of gas, often at the most inopportune moments. His wife and friends who are often also victims of his shortsightedness fail to see the humor in this, but it played out quite entertainingly for us. I was surprised that the associated song turned out to be “Parachute,” my favorite from the record. The clever extended simile claims, “Your heart is like a parachute, it only opens when it falls,” which always strikes me as quite poignant. It was an excellent set, and I invited the duo to come back anytime they wanted.
Opener Brett Newski lived in Madison for several years as leader of the well-received band The Nod. He moved to Vietnam for several years where he recorded new release In Between Exits before returning to the States. He had just completed an ambitious US tour and was finishing up in Madison before going international again with several shows in South Africa, one of them a festival sponsored by Rolling Stone. Full of youthful enthusiasm, he had plenty of stories to tell about his adventures in Vietnam, including how he got his brother (in attendance tonight) on a national basketball team there. He even convinced a first time show-goer to play harmonica on a song, she acquitted herself well. The crowd enjoyed him and he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. He’d been angling for a spot on a bill for awhile, I’m glad it finally worked out.