When you think about concerts, one word comes to mind: books.
I had a few shows already scheduled for Calgary when this thing popped up on Facebook and it sounded pretty neat. As part of a week-long festival of words by the name of Wordfest, there was a concert-slash-reading featuring musicians-slash-authors Geoff Berner, Rae Spoon, Kris Demeanor, and Caroline Connolly. There are readings and other events with all kinds of authors all week long; this particular session was called “How to Be… Wordy & Wild” and it was at the Big Secret Theatre downtown, where I first saw Hawksley Workman’s play The God That Comes a few years back.
I didn’t catch this initially, but that “How to Be” up there was selected because these are (mostly) the authors of the How to Be series of booklets. I am slow. But sometimes I get there eventually.
Or sometimes I get there early. The Big Secret Theatre is only two LRT stops away; for some reason, I still felt I needed to leave my grandma’s place over an hour beforehand to make sure I wasn’t late. This put me downtown with too much time to kill. I found a Tim Hortons and ordered a hot chocolate and played iPhone games until I could wander over at a more appropriate hour. The hot chocolate was both chocolatey and exceptionally hot; I wasn’t convinced it was going to cool off in time for me to make it to the show, but I powered through because I am an intrepid reporter and I am committed to my tasks. Unless I’m sleepy or it’s cold out or I just change my mind about going.
Let’s meet our authors. Klezmer punk accordionist Geoff Berner shows up regularly in these here reviews. He wrote the first volume in the series, How to Be an Accordion Player. Note that this booklet will not teach you how to play the accordion. It’s called How to Be an Accordion Player. This is an important distinction. Berner opened the event by explaining how the book series came to be; namely, they were commissioned by a shadowy, possibly Lithuanian, possible billionaire who may or may not have been in attendance.
Singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor is someone whose name I’ve heard forever but had never had the chance to see him perform before. He was Calgary’s inaugural poet laureate and he works with inner-city youth, so his booklet is titled How to Be an Asshole of Calgary.
The last time I saw Rae Spoon, it was probably 15 years ago and they were performing in the basement of a Cajun restaurant in Saskatoon. Since then, they’ve released a number of albums and gone on to widespread critical acclaim. I remember very little about that last show and I don’t have my old reviews immediately accessible (for which I’m thankful, as I probably sounded like a real dope), but I was really looking forward to the chance to see Spoon again. I also really miss that restaurant. Spoon’s booklet, the newest release of the four, is How to (Hide) Be(hind) Your Songs.
Caroline Connolly is an Alberta musician from a band called The Lovebullies. She also makes and sells gluten-free perogies, which is the noblest of callings. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never written a book. I feel like if she had, this would have come up. Carolyn Mark did, and it’s called How to Be a Boozy Chanteuse, which is how she was described in the New York Times. Mark was unable to attend, away “at an undisclosed location, doing very important things, like her hair,” so Connolly filled in for her. Mark did send her guitar, but upon inspection, it was just a guitar case filled with wine bottles and underwear. I’ve seen Carolyn Mark a few times and I’m 100% prepared to believe that this was legitimate and not a comedy bit.
The format was pretty simple; “like a folk festival workshop where no work gets done,” said Berner. They all took turns reading, then they read some more but also sang some songs, and then more reading and songs. The order was Berner > Connolly > Demeanor > Spoon > repeat, but folks would play and sing on each other’s songs.
You can probably infer how the readings went by the titles of the books. I mean, each booklet is about how to be something, so that’s what they talked about. And you may have also gathered that these are not super-serious instruction manuals for your life. Except maybe they should be? Spoon’s seemed the closest to being sincere, but all four authors got great laughs from the crowd – and, at times, from each other. Berner in particular has great comedic timing when telling stories.
He also nearly shot beer out his nose when Demeanor read the following lines about Calgary: “At the time of writing, our city is going through hard times. Aleppo hard.” Demeanor’s book seems like it might have the most laugh-out-loud potential of the four.
As for the songs, Connolly kicked it off with Mark’s tune 2 Days Smug and Sober, with Demeanor on guitar (and I believe Berner on accordion for this one). I really like this song and hadn’t heard it in forever. She did a fine job even if she needed a lyric sheet for reference.
I will break here to mention that if you have Apple Music, you can search for my SLCR 2017 playlist which features most everyone I’ve seen in concert this year. I had to make the hard choices about whether or not to include 2 Days on it, since Mark didn’t actually play here, but I ruled in favour of adding it to the list since I like it. It’s good to be the guy who makes rules.
Demeanor was up next with his song Liquidation World, which he played in lieu of reading the chapter of his booklet entitled How to Shop Like an Asshole. With witty lyrics and great guitar playing, I immediately decided I like this guy.
I couldn’t add Spoon’s first song to my playlist since it isn’t being released until next year. This made me sad because it’s called Do Whatever the Fuck You Want and I think this song presents some solid life advice. It also has a bridge where they spell out exactly what the song is about, so as to avoid any sort of misinterpretation. It was observed that Born in the USA should have had a bridge for that exact purpose. Spoon also noted that the more folk festival-friendly version of the song, Do Whatever the Heck You Want, is a big hit with children. I can totally see that.
Berner’s first tune was Hustle Advisory, off his brand new record Canadiana Grotesquica. It also has plenty of f-bombs in it and I’ve caught myself humming it all day. I’m not sure grandma approves.
The next round of songs was Swang Swang (or possibly Swing Swing said with a flourish?) by Connolly, which was one of her own, not Mark’s. Demeanor had the best title of the night with his next song, The Drunk You Is You. Spoon played their song Cowboy, and Berner covered Mark’s song Edmonton, one of my favourites of hers. The mention of Edmonton actually raised a gasp from one person in the audience, which Berner called attention to (“Yes. A sharp intake of breath.”) before encouraging us all to be open to learning about other cultures.
These were all interspersed with more readings, where we learned about asshole role models, how a boozy chanteuse should dress (if police aren’t suspicious, you’re not trying hard enough), Stalin, and how you can talk about Jesus when you secretly mean Carla. There was also some audience participation as we debated the pronunciation of halcyon and deigning (which I knew) and fecund (which I’m still not certain of).
After a round of very exuberant plugs for books and upcoming concerts, Spoon closed out the show with another excellently named song, My Heart is a Piece of Garbage. Fight Seagulls! Fight! This was picked to end the show since it references the Calgary Tower, only blocks away.
They were selling stuff and signing stuff after the show, so I went on a shopping spree. I already had Berner’s booklet from long ago, so I got the other three. They were $10 each or four for $30, so I picked up a second copy of How to be an Asshole of Calgary, since Colin just moved here last year and he could probably still use some advice. Demeanor kindly signed both copies and Spoon signed theirs as well.
While I didn’t need Berner’s booklet, I did pick up his new novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, days before its official release. His previous novel, Festival Man, was a great read so I’m really looking forward to this one. I got it signed too because I’m a dork like that.
This whole show was a goddamn delight and I smiled the whole time. What great, talented folks. Go see them all and go buy their books.
Much to love here – Geoff Berner has a new album! On the mighty Mint Records label! And, just like all his other efforts, Victory Party RULES.
The hallmarks of his unique sound are firmly in place; Eastern European gypsy rock party dance music with a deep political message and thoughtful, incisive (and often hilarious) lyrics and storytelling. The band is smoking hot, the songs are incredibly strong, and taken as a whole, Victory Party is a cohesive, brilliant record to be celebrated.
His voice is perfectly cracking on album opener Victory Party, and I loved the inclusion of the clarinet on Laughing Jackie The Pimp. Wealthy Poet is borderline techno in feel while remaining cohesive to its record mates’ sound. Mayn Rue Platz seamlessly joins many of his other songs from past records, solo accordion and a dark story, with eventual violin and back-up vocals gorgeously adding light to the song.
I Kind Of Hate Songs With Ambiguous Lyrics is an ambitious rocker with a funny yet poignant point, Daloy Polizei is Berner’s best take on Fuck Tha Police (in fact, that’s part of the lyrics!), and Jail brings back the clarinet to play along with a frankly funny look at what life might be like in prison. Rabbi Berner Reveals His True Religious Agenda lays out exactly what it advertises, Oh My Golem! uses drum machines and electronic dance accoutrements (!) to buoy a truly harrowing track that’s definitely the weirdest (yet satisfying) expedition on the disc. Bringing up the rear is Cherry Blossoms, a lament about home that slowly waltzes us into hoping Berner makes another record as hugely great as this one tomorrow!
Huge thanks to the Mighty Mint for getting this gem into our hands!
These six songs showcase Berner’s insightful and incisive humour, politics and thoughtfulness. His other records are great (his songs really benefit from collaboration with other musicians too), but this CD is like he’s in your living room, just playing. So great. Stick around for the hidden bonus songs tacked on to the end of A Blimp Made Of Human Skin, too.
This was one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. From the “How To Be Series” on Kolakovsky Press of Canada, How To Be An Accordian Player is, for it’s compact size and brief content, absolutely brilliant.
Geoff Berner, that Lucky Goddamn Jew, walks us through all of the most important things about being an accordian player, such as learning to swim in ditches, and making sure that your instrument is never, ever beige. And, most especially, don’t forget the lamb fetus. Oh yes!
I bought my copy directly from the beautiful and exceedingly talented Carolyn Mark (because Geoff was across the room, talking to other fans) after their amazing show we were so fortunate to attend in St. Catharines last November. Hands down, that was the best show I saw all year. That night was so full of irreplaceable memories and such great music it’s a wonder I didn’t pass out from the joy of it all…
Anyway, I read this book back then, and only got ‘round to writing about it in these pages now because I just got done reading it for a second time recently. Which really isn’t a reason at all, considering I should have done this review the first time around, but so be it.
You must own this book. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (maybe, if you’re the sensitive type), and you’ll learn the CBC’s (possible) connection to paranoid schizophrenia. You can carry this little gem in your pocket easily, for quick reference when you need it most. I recommend this practice to you and all of your friends.
To get a copy, check out www.geoffberner.com or contact the exceedingly helpful people over at Red Cat Records http://www.redcat.ca/local.html or, better yet, get off your fattening wannabe-accordian-player ass and get out to every Geoff Berner show you can manage, and buy your copies right from the traveling case of the man himself. That is, of course, the best possible way to join the growing list of cool kids who own this piece of art.
Completely recommended reading.
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.
There is Genuine Talent on this album. Berner sings in a straight-forward voice and a musical stomp about weddings, “history, geography and, possibly, the purpose human life on Earth (ahem).” [Song To Reconcile] And there’s so much more, ranging from Queen Victoria (“I want ornaments on everything!”), to some of what’s right and wrong about this whole thing called life.
These concepts may seem unlistenable, but I assure you that the opposite is definitely true. This album is really cool. It is unlike anything else you’ve heard in a while. It’s proof positive that bongo drums and accordions can co-exist on an album with aplomb. Seriously.
You’ll feel sorry for the Traitor Bride as she falls in love with a soldier from the other side, and feel like you’ve been to Eastern Europe as the violins swirl and the drums bring military precision to the whole affair.
Weep, Bride, Weep is probably the funniest song I’ve heard in a long time. There is much hilarity contained in these six minutes of, well, the most awful (tongue-in-cheek, we hope!) opinions of marriage ever. It’s also definitely the first time I’ve heard wedding preparations compared to the Normandy invasion.
The Fiddler Is A Good Woman, as you’ll learn here, and this is One Hell Of A Worthy CD.