music | Whisky Rabbi Meets Jewish Cowboy

Geoff Berner, the brashly Jewish, highly political accordion player with the outrageous wit, has been reeling in and out of my life for the past 10 years.

My first memories of Berner are of him wearing a white suit playing solo accordion in a tiny tent at the celebrated North Country Fair in Northern Alberta. I was drawn to the tent by strains of Jewish prayer nestled between song and banter full of provocative opinions.  This was among the last places I expected an artist to be positioning himself as the Jewish outsider, evoking the not forgotten sting of anti-semitism, while making deft allusion to injustices and absurdity continuing to exist in Canada.

“Victory Party”, Berner’s new album, was  produced by Montreal klezmer hip hop musician and NFB documentary star, Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled.  I spoke to Berner about the album while he was setting up for a show in Golden, BC.  We caught up and discussed the new record “Victory Party”, which represents a departure from his acoustic punk sound, most notably for the guest musicians, sound and samples by Socalled .

Based in Vancouver, BC, Berner has recorded four albums that dazzle with hilarious, poignant lyrics sometimes delighting and often challenging.  His songs alternate between raucous accordion with frenetic violin (“Song Written in a Romanian Hospital”) to sensitive pleas for justice (“One Shoe”). The last three records have been described by Berner as a trilogy of sorts, carving out his imprint on klezmer music, taking him across Europe and putting him in touch with other contemporary klezmer musicians that are exploring the genre.

“Victory Party” is the culmination of ten days in Montreal this past September, where Berner,  (songwriter of underground hits Whisky Rabbi and The Lucky God-Damn Jew) trusted Socalled (Montreal’s hip hop klezmer sampler, and performer of the snappy hit Jewish Cowboy),  to put his stamp on an artist better known for an acoustic punk ethic. The result is something quite different from Berner’s previous records but it’s exciting to hear new musical ingredients thrown into the mix.

Due in major part to Canadian indie label Mint Records, Berner was able to woo Dolgin into producing, and to bring in musicians from Brooklyn along with his usual collaborators from Vancouver.

All of this background does beg the question: How is the album? How does it stack up against Berner’s previous work? As it turns out, my first listen was on a Saturday morning, and self preservation required me to strap on headphones to ensure that I did not wake up my wife with what I fully expected to be 35 minutes of accordion moans and exulted screams. The clear mix of instruments, including a notably groovy bass and clarinet subsequently proved that Berner had succeeded in making his first headphone record. According to Berner “this was exactly Josh’s thing”. What cemented Geoff’s interest in working with Socalled was precisely that Dolgin was totally uninterested in records that try to recreate the live experience, but rather in “sonic confections that can only exist in the ears of the listener”.

I had to ask though, how did Berner’s acoustic punk aesthetic mesh with the hip hop oriented funkiness of Socalled and guest musicians? Geoff admitted that there was a certain amount of healthy conflict, and a lot of the resolution came with Berner deciding to go along with Dolgin’s ideas. In the quest to make a different sounding record, Berner in effect hired his own boss and, to a great extent, had to trust the recording process, resulting in a rich sounding album he would not have created himself.

Berner also recounts that the recording process was not always easy for the guest musicians either. Despite having been trained in a traditional conservatory, clarinetist Michael Winograd can play with edge. However, when asked to play something especially dissonant or rough, “you had to sell it to him; you had to make the aesthetic argument.”

Highlights of the album include the second track, a bouncing clarinet tune that tells the story of laughing Jacky, presumably a Jewish pimp.  I asked Berner why he writes songs that explore elements of the Jewish underworld (like Klezmer Mongrels or King of the Gangsters). He explains that in his larger body of work exploring Jewish culture, “you have to put it all in there, because if you leave it out you’re bowdlerizing the culture, you’re censoring and what that leads to is kitsch. You’re making something that pretends that your shit doesn’t stink, and that’s bad art.”

See, you learn new words when you talk with the whisky rabbi…

Other standout tracks include “Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda”, an alternative interpretation of the bible.  Finally, “Oh my Golem” is a late night hip shaker that features some of Socalled’s unabashed influence.

All this online ink to say that Geoff Berner will be making a return to Montreal on April 14th at Bobards.  He will be performing with the full Victory Party band along with Briga and Rae Spoon.

Previous live shows in Montreal have been bracing experiences often enhanced with whisky lubrication. The show usually includes new interpretations of Jewish themes for a popular audience. A recent favourite of mine was a mid-song commentary explaining that the next stanza from the song ‘Widow Bride’ comes from the Torah and muses that God should therefore be considered a co-writer, then wondering aloud to whom officials in charge of Canadian content would send the royalty cheque.  Now that’s entertainment!  See you there.

Geoff Berner (with Briga and Rae Spoon) live on April 14, 2011, at Bobards – 4328, boulevard Saint-Laurent.