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Stepping out of the shadows

After 16 years, Silver Jews are on their first tour

For 16 years, David Berman, the founder of indie iconoclasts the Silver Jews, has insisted on a very specific sort of privacy. His music is full of honesty and bittersweet rumination, but it always feels vaguely impersonal, as if he were somehow channeling himself. True intimacy, in Berman's world, is forever kept at arm's length -- by the title character in ''The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor," for instance, or by the confession, on a track from 2005's ''Tanglewood Numbers," that ''more will be seen than will be understood."

Berman has also worked hard to perpetuate his reputation as a recluse. He generally refuses to speak to journalists over the phone. He claims to prefer the precision and distance of e-mail. He writes stirring, moody poetry. He rarely emerges from his Nashville apartment long enough to read any of it in public. And although the Jews have been recording for a decade and a half, by most counts the band has been onstage only six times.

This is what makes tonight's sold-out Jews show at the Middle East Downstairs, part of the band's first-ever tour, a cause for celebration and concern: What happens when rock's J.D. Salinger finally takes his act live?

''David's the kind of person who functions very well from his home, where he can be busy and effective," said Bob Nastanovich, a close friend of Berman's and an original member of the Silver Jews. ''He's also, however, gotten more reclusive. The most overriding aspect in terms of our worries is how he is going to adapt to travel and to socializing and performing."

In 2003, following a much-publicized slide into drug and alcohol abuse, Berman attempted to take his own life. With the help of his wife, Cassie, Berman got clean, got religion -- he consults his rabbi regularly -- and eventually recorded the swaggering, upbeat ''Tanglewood Numbers," which was released by Drag City last year. The album plays like an exercise in catharsis, but like everything Berman does, it was attended to with a fitful, soul-searching anxiety.

''It took six months to make ['Tanglewood Numbers']," Berman wrote in an e-mail last week. He was on break from the first throes of the tour and stole a few minutes to talk about the record. ''Getting through it, solving the problems, managing artistic risk has a certain pleasure in itself which replenished my fatally low courage coffers," Berman said.

It is this lack of courage that friends like Nastanovich, who also played with indie giants Pavement, point to as the driving force behind the Jews tour. Berman is on the road as a natural progression in his musical career, but also as a test of his own will.

''I'm nervous every morning when I wake up," Nastanovich said. ''For David, it's a little different."

Rian Murphy, who produced the 1996 Jews album ''The Natural Bridge" and once played with Berman in a rare live appearance, said, ''I think there's always been so much internal concern, and that's why [a tour] has never really happened. But now [the band members] are all in the eye of the storm, in a calm and real and unique place."

Even in the band's early days, Berman saw himself as a writer first -- his lyrics were sprawling and unflinchingly highbrow and drove the tone of the music. After he recorded the EPs ''Dime Map of the Reef" and ''The Arizona Record" for Drag City, Berman departed for Amherst in the early '90s to participate in a graduate writing course at the University of Massachusetts.

The program, Berman wrote, ''kept me in that protected world of literature longer than is the normal allotment. . . . In 2.5 years at UMass, I made it once to Boston, [riding] along in the van with [local rockers] New Radiant Storm King for a show they had at the Middle East."

The academic exile may have been professional as well as personal. Berman has always had an uncanny knack for moderating how closely his band is compared with Pavement, whose frontman, Stephen Malkmus, was a close college friend and early Silver Jew. In the '90s, before and after Berman's sabbatical to UMass, Malkmus and Nastanovich played frequently in the band, although Berman took pains to keep his project separate from Pavement's growing fame (early liner notes list Malkmus and Nastanovich as ''Hazel Figurine" and Bobby N., respectively).

''Tanglewood Numbers," which was recorded at a handful of Nashville studios and which the Jews will play from extensively on this tour, represents Berman's most comprehensive effort to focus his songwriting. The album features artists as diverse as Will Oldham and former Scissor Girl Azita Youseffi but remains grounded by Berman's familiar, gutsy twang.

''One of the evolutions I've seen is David seems to have grown into his music," said former producer Murphy. ''The man can speak to people. That's the way it is with great songwriters: You want to be close to them."

''I guess I imputed deeper levels of pain," Berman wrote of some of his recent material. ''My experience of art is enriched by knowing extra-textual background."

But in the end, Berman has always let his ''extra-textual" music speak for him. His albums emit longing without ever becoming explicitly lonely; they empathize without ever asking for sympathy.

''There is deep feeling in David's work," Murphy says. ''I'll never forget this day in the studio during [the recording of] 'The Natural Bridge.' David was tired, and he was napping on the floor. Suddenly he was on his feet, very agitated. He said he had to record 'Pretty Eyes' " -- the final track on the album -- ''right away. So he put it down, and it was perfect, right then. That track's on the album. That deep feeling?" Murphy paused. ''I think it can be very unpleasant for David."

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