Skip to content

Klezmer accordion goes punk and drunk

This is a story about Geoff Berner and how a chance encounter with a rubber chicken changed his life.In short, it made him famous and snagged him…

This is a story about Geoff Berner and how a chance encounter with a rubber chicken changed his life.

In short, it made him famous and snagged him the girl of his dreams.

It’s one of those roundabout yarns.

The portentous chicken was thrown during the 2001 Frostbite music festival.

“The first time I was up there, was a life-changing experience for me,” he said from Vancouver.

Among the several life-changing aspects of that trip, he met throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

“I took her info with me down south and gave it to my alcoholic, transvestite manager at the time.”

The unnamed manager scheduled Tagaq for a number of folk festivals and Berner became part of her band for the occasions.

At one of these shows, he found his current manager.

“If that hadn’t of happened I wouldn’t have gotten into the Calgary folk festival, where I met the love of my life,” he said.

In the intervening five years, Berner has become a full-time musician.

He is also raising a two-year-old child.

“This is a big, full-circle thing for me to come back to Frostbite,” he said. “The whole thing got jump-started at that festival in a strange way.”

With his “lady friend” in tow, and their two-year-old at home, Berner plans on being drunk the whole time he’s in the Yukon, he said with a laugh.

Drunkenness is actually an integral part of his artistic plan.

“The thing that I’m into is this kind of dirty, drunk, political, klezmer music.

“The plan is to get drunk and have a good time, bouncing around and stuff.”

Klezmer music, a traditional Jewish form of folk music, was an integral part of Berner’s early experiences.

The klezmer sound stuck with him well into his formative years.

“My friends in music were taking their traditions of their families and marrying them with their punk rock sensibility,” Berner said.

“It just seemed to make sense to me to do that with the music of my heritage.”

And so he has.

And it has worked out very well.

Berner recently leapt across the stage for sold-out performances in eastern Canada. He will soon attend an accordion festival in Vienna and then follow with a tour of eight countries in northern Europe.

Before jetting east across the ocean, though, Berner will be flying north.

Yukoners are open to strange singing and songwriting, which is one reason why Berner looks forward to returning to the territory.

“Because, as a songwriter, I’m so darn good, you won’t have to feel stupid about bouncing around and being drunk,” he said. “There’s a deeper meaning level to your bouncing around and being drunk and having a good time.

“So, it’ll get you on all levels of human consciousness.”

While the future isn’t mapped out in concrete, Berner has a vision for his next album, The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride.

“The last one was songs more about drinking and God; this one’s going to be more about women,” he said.

Between the two albums he says he’ll have covered “the important stuff.”

Berner’s unconventional act, which blends the traditional with the experimental, works as a metaphor for the festival as a whole.

“It was a very scatter-gunned approach,” said Frostbite general manager David Prodan.

“We just look for the best thing going.”

In order to fill the slate with all-Canadian talent for the three-day showcase, organizers scouted out concerts across the country, surfed the web, read music mags, and held a battle of the bands on New Year’s eve for local bands.

Describing the combination of musicians as both disparate and cohesive, Prodan said this year’s festival attempts to blend the old with the new.

“There’s a good vein of chilled-out folk and pop rock,” he said. “I think there’s a rocking-concert, dance-style situation in the gym,”

“I think that for the third stage, the sort of youth-focused venue, it showcases some of the best acts in town right now for that demographic.”

Blending traditional folk crooning, with punk-rock “screamo,” Prodan hopes to draw more of the territory’s youth to dance floor.

The young in years, and the young at heart, can get their share of “heavy-rocking, loud, blaring, bleeding ears” music at the third stage, otherwise known as the drafting classroom in Yukon College.

Note-takers will be replaced by note-makers with DJs mixing danceable tunes on Friday night, while Saturday will stage a sharper sound featuring local rock and punk bands, including Friend Called Five.

“I’m looking forward to Friend Called Five the most,” Prodan said in a recent interview.

“There’s a lot of the old guard that’s not convinced that spastic punk rock is a good stage presence for Frostbite. But I disagree.

“I think it’s pushing the limits, and that’s perfect.”

Canadian rock icon Carole Pope, who rose to fame with her band Rough Trade in the 1980s, will be strutting across the stage to close the show Friday night, at the arts centre and Saturday night, at the main stage in the Yukon College gym.

“She’s been going for 30 years,” Prodan said, noting she has a new band and a fresh sound.

“It’s got some really interesting electronic flourishes to it,” Prodan said about her latest album.

“She was part of the whole dance rock revivalism of the ‘80s new wave. It’s really great to see her still going, still being a totally vivacious, talented, songwriter.”

Folk-rock stalwart Bob Wiseman, former keys player for Blue Rodeo, is bringing a theatrical twist to the festival.

Along with theatre artist Anand Rajaram, Wiseman will be performing a “clown mime fantasia” called Cowboys and Indians.

“I think this is sort of pushing the limits of music festival presentation,” Prodan said.

The show, which plays like a silent movie, will roll into Dawson and Haines Junction after the Frostbite.

Workshops and concerts will fill the afternoons, with a special kids’ concert on Sunday featuring a local “supergroup” spearheaded by folk singer Kim Barlow.

To end at the beginning, Barlow was also a key player in the now legendary chicken-throwing incident.

While Berner admits the chicken may not have been rubber at all, but in fact a plastic derivative of some kind, he knows it was Barlow who tossed the toy that his head half a decade ago.

Frostbite tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre and Houghen’s Box Office. Prices range from $10 to $25 depending on the event, and weekend passes go for $75.

About the Author: Yukon News

Read more