April 16, 2015
A musician who wields incendiary political barbs alongside fiery accordion licks, Vancouver musician Geoff Berner has been known to court controversy. Whiskey glass clutched in one hand, squeeze-box strapped to his chest, the sardonic purveyor of accordion-fueled drinking songs is somewhat of a rabble-rouser. Under his subversive tutelage, even the most mild-mannered and bookish of audiences morphs into a politically-charged mob gleefully shouting along with lyrics like “f**k the police!” Song titles such as “Lucky God Damn Jew”, “A Blimp Made of Human Skin” and “The Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Children Were Worth It)” give hints of the caustic, yet darkly humourous, subject matters that Berner mines for his chaotic and joyous music.
“The Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Children Were Worth It)” performance video.
Originally a pianist, Berner switched to accordion on a whim. Throughout most of the 1990s, he fronted the west coast punk band Terror of Tiny Town as lead vocalist and token accordion player. The band released two spectacularly unsuccessful albums during their tenure, with all the original songs penned by Berner himself.
After Terror of Tiny Town disbanded in the late 90s, Berner rerecorded some of those songs on his 2000 debut solo EP Light Enough to Travel. The title track became a chart success for the Vancouver band, The Be Good Tanyas, who covered it on their debut album Blue Horse. “Light Enough to Travel” has also been recorded by Alberta country musician and eminent poker shark Corb Lund, who has said of Berner that he “would be a great card player, if he applied himself”.
Following a move to Norway in 2000 (reportedly a deportation), Berner became associated with Kaizers Orchestra, one of the first non-metal bands singing in Norwegian to gain popularity outside of Scandinavia. They established a bit of a Canadian-Norwegian mutual admiration society, with Berner playing tour support for the band more than thirty times and Kaizers Orchestra covering Berner’s song “Whiskey Rabbi” on a 2012 compilation album of Geoff Berner covers, Festival Man, The Album.
In 2002, Geoff Berner recorded his first full-length solo album We Shall Not Flag Or Fail, We Shall Go On To The End. The album provided fodder for many other artists, in particular the track “We All Gotta Be a Prostitute Sometimes” which has been covered numerous times. He recorded his only live album to date, Live in Oslo, in 2004.
“We All Gotta Be a Prostitute Sometime” performance video.
Around the same time, Berner began to closely embrace the musical roots of his eastern European Jewish heritage. Determined to lift klezmer—the traditional folk music of that culture—from dusty history books and back into its rightful place in bars, wedding dances and passions of drinking people everywhere, Berner set about to master the genre. Always a world traveller (who has performed in seventeen countries and who tours Europe at least twice a year), Berner travelled to Romania to study klezmer under the tutelage of that country’s musical gurus.
“Song Written in a Romanian Hospital” performance video.
He subsequently recorded a trio of klezmer albums in two-year intervals—Whiskey Rabbi in 2005, Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride in 2007 and Klezmer Mongrels in 2009—which were met with a mixture of enthusiasm, controversy and ribald audience singalongs. Berner’s most recent album, 2011’s Victory Party, was produced by Josh Dolgin (aka SoCalled), who is acclaimed for his experimentation with hip-hop/klezmer fusion.
“Whiskey Rabbi” official video.
With each successive release, Geoff Berner’s reputation as a musical rabble-rouser has increased exponentially. His stage presence, which generally features the persona of an inebriated provocateur, is a big hit at folk festivals everywhere. Throughout festival season, Berner’s name regularly appears on playbills at festivals throughout Canada and Europe. Evidently, the accordion-wearing festival man is also welcome in Bruno, Saskatchewan, where he is the proud recipient of the keys to the city.
Prior to becoming a full-time musician, Geoff Berner wrote some episodes for Sesame Street and the animated series Ed, Edd and Eddie. These days, in addition to the sardonic wit that he unleashes in his lyrics, Berner keeps his writerly skills mostly confined to page-turning world. A semi-regular writer for BC Musician Magazine, he has contributed a series to the periodical that he purports to be the recently discovered memoirs of Campbell Ouiniette, former head of Bombsmuggler Incorporated Music Management.
A subversive little instructional booklet, How to Be an Accordion Player, which Berner published in 2006, still racks up respectable sales at folk festival record tents every summer. In 2013, Geoff Berner published his first novel, the appropriately titled Festival Man. The book release was accompanied by an album (Festival Man, The Album) featuring some of the musician’s usual collaborative compadres—Rae Spoon, Carolyn Mark, Kris Demeanor and others—covering quintessential Geoff Berner compositions like “That’s What Keeps the Rent Down, Baby”, “The Rich Will Move to Higher Ground”, and “Phoney Drawl”.
“That’s What Keeps the Rent Down, Baby” performance at 2012 Brandon Folk Festival.
Infamously political in his music, Berner has also been politically active in the more traditional sense. During the 1990s, he ran several times as either the federal or provincial candidate for the Green Party. In the 2001 BC provincial elections, Berner ran in opposition to premier Gordon Campbell, as the candidate for the Rhinoceros Party of Canada. In the process, he raised a few eyebrows with his main campaign promise of “cocaine and whores to potential investors”.
Raising eyebrows and raising spirits (both the emotional kind and the kind that comes in a screw-top bottle), is what Canadian musician Geoff Berner excels at. His raucous accordioneering, combined with his searing and sardonic wit, makes Berner’s brand of klezmer music both a joyous celebration and a call to arms. Not just for folk festivals anymore, Geoff Berner’s music invites us all to thumb our collective noses at the forces of mediocrity and oppression, and to dance with reckless abandon.
“When DD Gets Her Donkey, Everything Will Be Alright” official video.