I was on the fence about this one.
PRO: The first time I saw Geoff Berner was a fantastic night of music that made me a fan of Ford Pier, and then made me a fan of Berner, and then made me a fan of Carolyn Mark, and it’s in my top 10 shows ever
CON: One time I saw Berner at O’Hanlon’s and it was full of people who didn’t pay to get in and didn’t know who he was and weren’t interested in his weirdness or his accordion or his politics and he responded by not caring in kind
PRO: The Artful Dodger is a nice venue, much more suited to Berner
CON: I thought it would be well suited to Danny Michel too, but it was full of people who didn’t appear to pay cover and weren’t interested in listening and wouldn’t get out of my way
CON: Nobody wanted to go with me
PRO: It was during my vacation week from work so what the hell
That last one only brings it up to a tie and really shouldn’t count anyway, but it pushed me over the line somehow. VACATION WOO
So yeah. I went alone to the Artful Dodger for the show. I wandered in past an unattended pile of CDs and books, and hit the bar to pay for my ticket and get the least beer-flavoured beer I could identify (Shock Top). My fears of Berner being drowned out by the chatty supper crowd were unfounded. I got there right before the scheduled 8:00 start time – the opening act was already on stage, doing their soundcheck while Berner sat at a table down in front with some friends – and I was the first person to sit in the bench seats at the back. At the peak of the evening, I don’t think there were more than 70 people in attendance, including the staff and musicians. I am pretty bad at guessing attendance, but I had time enough to count people, so I think this one is reasonably accurate.
The openers were the Whiskey Jerks, a six-piece from Saskatoon. They brought a nice mix of instruments with them, including an accordion, a violin, a standing bass, and a range of wind instruments (he said, hiding his inability to confidently identify anything beyond a flute). It was folk music that had a real swing to it, delivered with a good sense of humour. These folks seemed like they were having a good time and that was contagious. They played for about 45 minutes or so, stopping at one point to ask Berner how much time they had left (he didn’t know and didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned). I was only familiar with the last song they played, which was one of Berner’s. This all worked out well. You could tell they really liked that song, Berner seemed to enjoy the tribute (they’d obviously cleared it with him beforehand), and I got to hear one of my favourite Berner songs, Wealthy Poet. That was actually the third time I’d heard someone else play that one; it’s performed by Maria in the Shower on the Festival Man album (a collection of Berner songs performed by other artists), and I heard some random band playing it on Scarth Street one noon hour a few years ago. It’s a good one. A nice mix of catchy and horrifically bleak.
I think Geoff Berner has opinions. I say “I think” because lyrics are poetry and poetry is subjective, right? I’m an English major, I know that you can bullshit any sort of “meaning” out of any random collection of words. But I am reasonably confident when I say that Geoff Berner has opinions. He played a new song with what he described as a subtle political message. This song was called “I Think That We Should Probably Just Vote NDP This Time.” This song has not yet been released, so I don’t know if “When we get proportional representation, then you can go ahead and vote your Greens” was part of the official title. Maybe in parentheses?
If you’re still unclear about Berner’s political leanings, another new song included the lines “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious / I hope Stephen Harper dies of multiple sclerosis,” to which he added “preferably in a First Nations health centre in a reserve in northern Ontario. Or a ditch!”
That song was about one the great joys of being Jewish; namely, you get to dance and celebrate when bad things befall your enemies. He also played a new one called “I Feel Less Mad At God When I See You In Your Summer Dress,” as well as the song he opened his set with, “We Are Going To Bremen To Be Musicians.” That one is the theme song to the new children’s book he just put out. Because of course he did and of course it is. Really, the majority of the show was made up of new songs; I have all of Berner’s albums, and I still only recognized a handful of tunes – That’s What Keeps The Rent Down Baby, Maginot Line, Mayn Rue Platz, and the closing number, When DD Gets Her Donkey, Everything Will Be Alright. And Daloy Polizei, which translates into “fuck the police.” Berner graciously offered other klezmer bands the opportunity to cover the song and replace some of the lyrics with their own stories of police brutality, “you know, for that local flavour. There’s lots to choose from right now.”
I was a little disappointed that the set was so short. He shut things down after about an hour, which surprised me. He has a ton of songs, and despite the relatively low turnout, the folks who did show up were really into it. That, or it’s just easy to get people to shout along to “STUPID, STUPID” or “FUCK THE POLICE.” Either way, I had a good time.