GEOFF BERNER CD release with KRIS DEMEANOR at Oasis (294 College), Friday and Saturday (March 11 and 12). $8. 416-975-0845. Rating: NNNNN
Klezmer-crazy accordion ace Geoff Berner's liver must hate him.
While a little alcohol never killed anyone, it got Berner into trouble last year. While exploring the roots of traditional klezmer music on an Alan Lomax-style jaunt through the smoky hills of Romania, the Vancouver native hit the bottle a bit too hard. On one occasion, he awoke to the most vicious hangover of his life.
Alan Lomax? Try Keith Richards.
"I was trying to be culturally sensitive," explains Berner from a tour stop on the West Coast. "If you don't drink with the locals you're just being rude, and I ended up puking and puking. Obviously, I got really thirsty when I was done, so I drank a bunch of water from a well."
Apparently, the well water in rural Romania isn't exactly pristine, and Berner found himself laid out with a mysterious nasty bug in the infectious diseases ward of a hospital in Brasov.
"I thought I was gonna die," he admits.
But did he hang up his drinking hat and get off the sauce? Oh, no. Instead, Berner wrote a song about the experience (the aptly titled Song Written In A Romanian Hospital), smuggled some of that Roma hooch home with him and titled his new record Whiskey Rabbi.
Like a Jewish Shane McGowan, Berner writes the kinds of songs that play out like a drunken group therapy session - crude, brutally honest and often shockingly funny.
Maybe that's why roots mainstays like the Be Good Tanyas and Corb Lund cover his tunes, and his raucous live show goes over equally well in front of klezmer fans, folkies and punks.
"Nietzsche talked about the Apollonian and the Dionysian," explains Berner. "I think too much of folk music is Apollonian, like it has to be played perfectly and it has to make people smile. I'm going for the opposite."
No kidding. During sessions for the new record, Berner says he and pals Wayne Adams (percussion, vocals) and Diona Davies (violin, vocals) dipped into his stash of Palinka moonshine and made the record, which he thinks of as a collection of "new Jewish drinking songs," half cut.
"We were at the same studio in Vancouver (Little Mountain Studios) where Bon Jovi and AC/DC made all those horrible records in the 80s, so the equipment is top-notch. Everything was done with impeccable mics and expert technology, but we were going for lots of drunken energy."
Berner started doing regular solo gigs after his old band, West Coast punkers Terror of Tiny Town, called 'er quits. Spurred on by enthusiastic audience response, he debuted with the folk-inflected Light Enough To Travel LP in 2000. Three years later, he followed up with We Shall Not Flag Or Fail, We Shall Go On To The End.
A fervent brew of gravelly klezmer, protest folk and manic punk energy, the new record dives mouth first into love, sex and politics. On the track Lucky Goddamn Jew, Berner gets downright political, cutting into Israeli domestic policy. "Now I've got my own country," he sings, "where I am free / to persecute people with less luck than me."
"Conservative Jews? I hope I piss them off," Berner exclaims. "Actually, people have suggested I shouldn't play a song like Lucky Goddamn Jew in some places, like New York.
"But I haven't gotten any letters from B'nai Brith yet."