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Carolyn Mark & Geoff Berner with Diona Davies (September 23, 2007)

Have you ever had high hopes about an anticipated event, dreamed impossible things that could only happen under the most amazing circumstances, and had the practical part of your brain tell you that they were highly unlikely? Well, last Sunday night we lived the dream, baby! Wahooo! It’s taken me a long time to write this review, longer than any other posting so far in my history of writing for the KMA, simply because making the words fit the awesomeness has been very very difficult. I’m still not certain I succeeded. 

And so it begins…

We were thrilled to learn that Carolyn Mark and Geoff Berner’s Eastern Philosophy tour would bring them as near to our house as a usual tour could bring them. Where we live, we’re at least 2 hours’ drive from anything. As if that would stop us! We were going to the show, end of story.

Looking for tickets, I checked Ticketbastard and Copps Coliseum, emailed the amazing Shena at Mint and called the venue, Strega in St. Catharines. I finally learned that there weren’t going to be tickets. It would be laid-back, first-come first-served and, while there may be a cover charge of a few bucks at the door, that was it. Days early, I suggested leaving for St. Catharines immediately and pitching a tent on the sidewalk in front of the venue until the day of the show, thus ensuring that we’d get in. My lovely wife finally talked me down from that idea… Shena at Mint also said she’d ask Carolyn if she’d put us on the Guest List, so we’d be sure to get in. Amazing!! Thanks, folks!!

My lovely wife and I both wrangled Monday off from work, because St. Catharines is a solid three and a half hour (or more) drive from our house and we didn’t relish the idea of driving all the way back after the show and then having to go straight in to work the next morning. Besides, this made for a nice way to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary – a road trip and an amazing show. Right on!

The trip down was uneventful until we got to Hamilton, that industrial brown pollution smudge of poorly-marked-until-it’s-too-late roads. Fuck you, Hamilton. You wasted an hour of our lives just trying to navigate your labyrinth of hellish urban disarray, unconnected major highways and strip mall degredation.

But we eventually prevailed, found the hotel, waited around awhile and then caught a cab to the show. When we arrived, we were just about the only ones there. Can you imagine? Where were the lineups, the throngs? What is wrong with the people of St. Catharines? At its peak in the evening, the crowd was probably only about 30 people, and one girl to our right was sitting reading a magazine (!) while these artists played! What the hell?!?! These artists deserve to be playing for much larger and far more appreciative crowds in much larger venues. Seriously. Have anyone ask me. I’ll tell ‘em.

The venue, Strega, was incredibly cozy, with 10 or so tables, but there were still plenty of seats left for more fans. Of course, we chose the table as close to where the performers would be as possible, which was quite literally arm’s length away. We ordered wine (red only, in honour of Ms. Mark!) and food, and while we waited Carolyn Mark arrived, heading out to the patio for a smoke because Ontario is still so completely anal about people smoking anywhere even remotely near anything.

The food arrived and it was delicious (Strega makes really good food, you should try it). As we ate, I was telling the guy setting up the mikes that he better watch his levels because Carolyn has a very powerful voice (like Neko’s!) and, in a room that small, she could really set people back when she leaned in and let ‘er rip. He just shrugged and grinned, leaving me to look warily at the large speaker hovering about four feet from my head.

And now the story gets awesome. You see, I’ve met musicians I admire before, like the time I met Harry Connick Jr. in Toronto. But he was trapped behind a table signing autographs in the Bay on Queen (in the lingerie section, no less, because his wife models the stuff), forced to meet everyone in the line so that wasn’t so difficult. And then there was the time in Saskatoon that James and I chatted with Chris Murphy of Sloan after the show we saw there. That was really cool. I love Sloan whole bunches. But initiating such encounters off the cuff, so to speak, is harder for me as a general rule.

My point being, I’d noticed Geoff Berner standing over by the door, and took one of the greatest leaps of social confidence I’ve ever made by simply walking over and introducing myself. I say this took courage because, as noted, I’m not usually in the habit of actually meeting the people whose work I admire and truly enjoy. I just don’t get out that much, I guess. Anyway, I’m totally a fan of the talented Mr. Berner (we have all his records and love each one), so it isn’t quite my first instinct to just stride up and be so bold. Yeah, call me nervous. But Geoff turned out to be a warm, welcoming (and sharply dressed) man who considers his words and speaks quietly. He radiates a calm and care that I found refreshing in this brash and rude culture we call home. He said he was pleased we’d driven so far to see them play, asked some questions about where we live, and encouragingly gave the green light for me to take some pictures (sans flash, at my suggestion, of course).

To further test my social confidence, at that point Carolyn Mark walked up, she of the brilliant songwriting ability, boundless energy, quick wit and, as it turns out, equally genuine wonderfulness. She proved to be just as welcoming as Geoff, thrilled that we’d made it out to the show. Our name was even in her new tour notebook, as a reminder from Shena about the Guest List. Cool! So, despite my initial trepidation, there I was, talking to two of my favourite musicians. I felt like pinching myself. It was one of those moments of amazement – was this really happening? Yes! Oh yes, indeed!

A little later, without much preamble, Geoff simply walked up to the microphone and started playing. And play he did! His set started out as gentle as he is, slowly building through his tales of history, humanity and humour. What doesn’t seem to fit the man I met is the power of his singing voice when he’s performing, but there it was in all its glory, at times soaring, at times raspy and almost searching, quizzical. Among the many tunes he graced us with were Volcano God, Can’t Stay Dry, Weep Bride Weep (which included our singing along), Widow Bride, Would It Kill You, Clown & Bard, Maginot Line (with all of us yelling ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ in the appropriate places), the hilarious and frighteningly true The Rich Are Going To Move To The High Ground, a cover of the New Pornographers’ Letter From An Occupant and, much later as he screamed his way to the ecstatic finale, I’m A Lucky Goddamn Jew.

Between songs, and sometimes right in the middle of them too, he told us stories about how the songs were written, or what he means when he says certain things (which is often quite funny, told in a deadpan manner). He also commented on the effects the songs have on some people (for example, apparently the Norwegian Nazis don’t like his record – imagine that).

Geoff Berner is a treasure. His approach to music is honest and informed, blending an awareness of the present with his own unique interpretation of the past. But as his shiny black and silver Estella accordion wails, he’s hopeful, too. He’s looking out at our shared future and believing that everything’s ultimately going to be alright. Geoff Berner is proof that there is elegance in simplicity, brilliance around every corner and honesty in a world that’s learning to forget it. I’d go see him play anytime, anywhere. So should you.

Joining him on violin for most of the tracks was the lovely and incredibly talented Diona Davies (all of Po’ Girl, Geoff’s last two records, Carolyn’s latest record, etc etc). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fiddle player with so much skill play so nonchalantly. You’ve got to watch her hands because her face and her body language isn’t betraying much effort at all. Awesome! And, of course, her accompaniment was perfect. Each note fit just as it should, never overpowering or being overpowered either. Beautiful.

Sadly, about half way through Geoff’s set, my camera’s batteries died. And the four spares that I’d brought were dead too! It was like one of those bad dreams, you know, where you show up unprepared and everybody laughs. Well, at least on this night nobody laughed, but I sure did curse myself for not checking the batteries before we left. I make a pretty bad journalist, eh?

We blissfuly watched until the end of Geoff’s set (not wanting to miss a note), and then I went to the bar to ask but they didn’t have any batteries. They suggested a convenience store 2 blocks up the street, which would be closing in 15 minutes. Since Carolyn was just tuning up, I had time. Diona Davies happened to be standing at the bar getting a refill of the red wine she called the Magic Music Juice and, after telling me they’d been up until 5:30 am that morning just playing music, offered to tell Carolyn to wait ‘til I got back before starting her set. See? These people are so sweet! So I ran up the street to find that the shop was already closed (despite their posted hours)! I could see the guy in there, too, but he totally ignored me. Rrrrg! Fuck you, St. Catharines Convenience Store Man for closing early! Wait, I know! He must’ve moved to St. Catharines from Hamilton. That must be it.

Resigned, I ran back to the venue so as not to keep anyone waiting, and prepared to mentally capture it all so I could at least attempt to use my meager words in this space to describe the show. Carolyn asked if I got what I needed, saying she had some batteries in her car… back home… out west… Hm. Never mind. I just told her that if a picture is worth a thousand words, I’d simply have to write several thousand words. And I seem to be well on my way by now, as it is…

And then this little trifling problem ceased to matter because Carolyn started playing. For those of you who have heard her stuff, you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say she was right on target and in fine form. If you haven’t heard her yet, shame on you! Get out there and buy all of her records right now! Today! And oh man, even better, she was joined in her set by Diona Davies too. Bliss!

She announced that the setlist they’d prepared would be All Love Songs, but requests would also gladly be accepted. We were treated to a really great selection of tunes, including Don’t Come Over Baby, The 1 That Got Away With It, Gopherville, Get Along, The Wine Song, Fireworks, Point O’ View, Poisoned With Hope, and a cover of Ray Price’s A Legend In My Own Time. I requested Edmonton, because we love the bit about the border guard, and they played it awesomely even though the words got muffed a bit.

Later in the set, well into our second bottle of Coyote’s Run, I howled for Catscan because it’s one of my faves. Carolyn said she couldn’t play that one without Tolan (fair enough!) but then she immediately offered to play a “secret” Tolan song that he’d taught her in the backyard, telling her not to “sing it like a girl.” I can’t remember now what the song was called but it sure was great! They played several more, and finally crashed to a close with the hilarious You’re Not A Whore If No One’s Paying.

I can think of a ton of other songs I’d have requested (which would likely have ended up encompassing her entire catalogue, thus presumably keeping her playing until the following afternoon). But we can’t be greedy, for the show itself was absolutely perfect as it was. How could we not enjoy the witty and charming between-song banter, or the unique moment which found her kneeling for a drink of water from a cup on the floor followed, after standing again, by a gargling solo replete with its finale of spraying water all over everything, including us? Or what about the bit at the end where she went to walk out into the crowd, unplugging her guitar to go acoustic and got the cord caught in her guitar strap (with Diona coming to the rescue)? Each moment was filled with heart, with humour, and with great, great music.

After the show, I was perusing the merch table by the door and ended up talking to both artists again! Oh man! I already own all of Carolyn’s records, but I did pick up two of Geoff’s records and his book How To Be An Accordian Player. And if you’re reading this rather lengthy posting, Geoff, I payed Carolyn for them because you weren’t there yet! I’m sure she got it all sorted out. I did notice Carolyn’s cookbook Recipes For Disaster, one thing I hadn’t yet found in my travels. I tried to pay her for it but she wouldn’t take money, saying we’d done enough. She even autographed it for us. I hugged her, thanking her for everything. And I meant it.  

We ended up in quite a conversation, that ranged over many topics, including their maybe playing next year’s Summerfolk festival here in our town (which would rock ‘cos it’s so close to our house and we would totally love to see them again!), hypochondria (she found out what my lovely wife does for a living), the better than good chance of a Corn Sisters reunion (this time with Kelly Hogan making it a trio! Wahoo!), a proposed tour with Bob Snider and Bob Wiseman (said she’d be the girl in the Bob sandwich) and the letter I wrote in response to the article about the Mintern (see previous KMA rants about Fresh Breath of Mint Vol. 6) that will be appearing in the next issue, Vol. 7, of FBoM magazine. Apparently, there was speculation that my letter was written as a joke by Mint staffers to tease the Mintern (who is also Carolyn’s friend). But no, it was me, and I meant every word of it, too, no actual offense intended to the guy. Carolyn asked if I’d ever been to the offices (sadly, we haven’t ever been west of Lake Louise – yet), telling me that Mint operates in a “tiny space filled with cardboard boxes and one overworked Asian man.” Still doesn’t sound too bad to me, ‘cos I know she was likely exaggerating at least a little.

I had the great fortune to speak with Geoff again, too. He asked some more questions about our town, about life in this part of the world in general. He’d also mentioned, during his set, that he’d received an email that morning from a fan at the previous night’s show (at the Jane Bond, in Waterloo) expressing her concern for how much Geoff drank during the show. He seemed amused by this, certain he’d not had as much as that letter writer had worried about. And so he said it was nice to end the day meeting people who’d driven so far specifically to be (and have a great time) at the show, after starting the day with an email like that.

“Holy, look at the time…” I realized I’d better pay up as it was getting late, so I handed my lovely wife our books and records and went to settle up the tab. Apparently Geoff witnessed this, so she said “I’ve got the loot!” to which Geoff replied that she was like a gangster’s moll. Ha ha! Awesome! And then we were outside waiting for a cab, saying goodbye to Carolyn and Diona while they relaxed on the small deck with a well deserved after-show smoke.

The next day, after heading over to Niagara to check out the Falls before the long drive home, we talked about our experience, and about the show itself. Folks, we couldn’t have asked for a more amazing night. The marvelous music, the genuinely wonderful people, the venue, the entire night. It seemed too good to be true, but we know all of it happened. We will never forget a minute of it.

We wish the entire crew all the best on the rest of their tour, and all of you (yes YOU, Dear faithful KMA readers) should totally get out and see them every chance you get. Take all your friends. Fill those rooms to Fire Code Maximum Allowance limits and enjoy the amazing music. Seriously. Go.

Thank you, whole-heartedly, to everyone involved: Shena, Geoff, Carolyn, Diona, the folks at Strega, everybody.

Thank you.

Wahoooooooo!

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