Monday, November 04, 2013

Geoff Berner's Festival Man

It should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of Vancouver’s whisky rabbi, Geoff Berner. I was pleasantly surprised to find out last year that he was about to publish his first novel, Festival Man, released last month on Dundurn Press. It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. Every musician in Canada needs to read it. He’s coming to your town sooner than later to sing and talk about it, including this Wednesday, November 6 at the Gladstone in Toronto, where he’ll be interviewed by Dave Bidini, and Sunday, November 10 at the Ebar in Guelph with Bob Wiseman and Jenny Mitchell. Full tour schedule is here.

My review of Festival Man ran in Maclean’s in the Oct. 21 issue. It reads a little something like this:

Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to speak truths. Because really, what self-respecting musician would spill the goods on the larceny, loathing and lies that exist beneath the polite construct of multiculti hippie bliss that is the Western Canadian folk festival circuit? Geoff Berner, a fearless klezmer punk accordionist and self-proclaimed “whisky rabbi” who has played more than his share of festivals in Canada and Europe (where he’s opened stadium shows for Norway’s most popular rock band), makes his debut as a novelist by writing about what he knows: grifters and drifters, poets and performance artists, and the delusion and daring necessary to make difficult art happen in a culture such as Canada’s.

The plot of Festival Man is suitably ridiculous, and yet entirely believable to anyone who’s ever made big gambles on low stakes in the Canadian music industry—or anywhere else: a con man and artist manager who survived the siege of Sarajevo makes one last bid for greatness by trying to bag a big-time British management deal for his misfit clients, who are playing the Calgary Folk Festival on the pretext of backing up a hyped Inuit throat singer. There is no gripping climax here. Instead, Berner employs his unreliable narrator as effectively as Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music, or, say, Keith Richards’s Life—each of which, page for page, Berner can match with both anecdotal hilarity and razor-sharp Richler-esque satire.

Festival Man is absolutely required reading for anyone who’s ever played, worked or fallen down drunk at a folk festival. But Berner’s wit transcends a niche audience in the same way you don’t need to know anything about New Orleans to appreciate A Confederacy of Dunces. Readers of Festival Man don’t have to be able to spot microscopically veiled portraits of Corb Lund, Ford Pier, Tanya Tagaq Gillis or Billy Bragg—or even know who they are—to laugh out loud repeatedly. Few would believe these stories if told they were true—which, in fact, many of them are.

But wait, there’s more! To help promote the book, Berner, an unsung hero who’s earned the right to be vain, commissioned his friends to record a tribute album to himself. It’s not just an excellent, diverse and appropriate companion to the book, it’s also one of the top three albums in Geoff Berner’s decade-long discography (see also: Whisky Rabbi, Victory Party)—despite the fact that Berner himself does not perform on it at all.

I reviewed it for the Waterloo Record, and it reads a little something like this:

Geoff Berner is the whisky rabbi, the acerbic accordionist raised on punk rock who calls himself a “lucky goddam Jew.” He must certainly be feeling lucky this week: not only has he just released his debut novel, Festival Man, to glowing reviews, but he called in some favours to assemble a tribute album to himself. Vain? Sure. But it’s also a brilliant tie-in, and a nudge to anyone who didn’t already know what an astounding songwriter Berner is. And truth be told, Berner’s own recordings don’t always do his material justice.

So here we have Norwegian stadium stars (Kaizers Orchestra), Canadian country kings (Corb Lund), Asian improv groups (Orchid Ensemble), transgender electro-folk artists (Rae Spoon), German gypsy punks (RotFront), Calgary’s former poet laureate (Kris Demeanor) and a choir of Grade 5 students from Flesherton, Ontario, just for good measure. It sounds like it could be a mess. It’s not. Like the folk festival workshops Berner writes about in his book, it’s the common ground underneath the incongruous surface that really shines.

It speaks to the strength of Berner’s songs that they succeed in each context. Lately he’s been working primarily on reinventing klezmer music, but this also acts as a reminder that he’s just as sharp while skewering gentrification, or mocking Ontario bluegrass bands for affecting Southern accents. His best-known song, “Light Enough to Travel,” was covered by the Be Good Tanyas long ago; Norwegian band the Real Ones do an equally lovely version here.

It’s fantastic that the most commercially successful artist here, Corb Lund, chose to cover one of Berner’s best songs—and one that is mysteriously absent from any of Berner’s own studio albums, “That’s What Keeps the Rent Down.” Too bad Lund sings it in a key and a tempo in which he sounds bored—which, as anyone who has heard Lund rave about Berner’s brilliance will know, he most definitely is not. On the other hand, Carolyn Mark takes another one of Berner’s inexplicably unrecorded rarities, “Prairie Wind,” and brings it to life; likewise with Kris Demeanour and “The Rich Will Move to Higher Ground.”

The Festival Man album is free for anyone who buys a copy of the novel. You don’t need this accompanying album as a reason to buy the book; the fact you get both for one price is the entertainment deal of the season.

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