The Silver Jews don't tour. That's an accepted fact within the indie community. And yet, 15 years into a career limited to the fitful release of albums such as the new ''Tanglewood Numbers," there they were on the Middle East Downstairs stage Sunday night in front of a sold-out crowd. ''This is only our eighth show ever," announced singer-guitarist David Berman, promising a return next year.
It's hard to tell what the response will be if he makes good on that. The rarity of the visit allowed the Silver Jews to get away with what might have otherwise been considered a lazy performance. There was a ramshackle charm to their music, as three guitars washed into one another in a blurry reflection of laid-back 1970s California country-rock. But Berman was never able to snap it into focus.
Not much of a singer, Berman revealed a voice that was a flat, conversational monotone. The music stand in front of him isolated him in two ways -- pulling his attention away from the audience and literally throwing up a barrier. Berman compounded this by turning his back on the crowd whenever he could, and he left the stage in the middle of the band's closing cover of T.G. Sheppard's ''I Loved 'Em Every One," just as guitarist Peyton Pinkerton began his show-ending solo.
The fans didn't seem disappointed, though, greeting the performance with enthusiasm. A few songs merited such a response, including the country psychedelia of bassist Cassie Berman's ''The Poor, the Fair and the Good" and ''There Is a Place," in which the simple, repeated lyric ''I saw God's shadow on this world" fueled a steadily building energy. But if the Silver Jews plan on becoming a regular touring act, they'll eventually need to do more than get applause by just showing up.
Opening act Ketman performed a high-energy but aimless set of moody indie noise jams. It was followed by New Radiant Storm King, whose edgy two-guitar attack gave its indie pop a strong enough foundation for the band to play extended solos without seeming indulgent.