Geoff Berner calls his new album a wedding record, but it's not the kind of thing you'd hear at Brock House. For example, the song "Weep, Bride, Weep" includes the line, "Nothing but the horrifying agony of childbirth for you to look forward to now."
The origins of The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride, his third full-length solo disc, lie in Berner's exploration of klezmer music's role in different matrimonial traditions. In some parts of the world, for instance, crying brides are not only expected, but are part of the fun. "In the three-day Eastern European Jewish wedding ritual, there are a bunch of different songs that play different roles in the ceremony, and one of them is a song where the bride sits on a chair and the band stands around and the emcee sings a song to make her cry," says Berner, over coffee in a Commercial Drive café. "It's a traditional form. I think it was always semihumourous—at least to the older people."
The accordion player has been gravitating towards klezmer music ever since the release of his debut solo EP in 2000. Following his 2003 full-length We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go On to the End, he went to Romania to find out more about his Eastern European Jewish heritage. "The most glamorous aspect of my research was finding these old gypsy guys who played in the klezmer bands before the war," he says. "That was important to learn—that these were multi-ethnic bands."
In 2005 Berner released Whiskey Rabbi, which featured the provocative "Goddamn Lucky Jew" and utilized the talents of violinist Diona Davies and percussionist Wayne Adams. The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride continues in the vein of that record, with Davies, Adams, and Berner creating a dark-hued sound. The clattering drums, wheezing accordion, mournful violin, dry vocals, and blackly humourous lyrics evoke a kind of existential dread, especially on "Queen Victoria", which intentionally recalls the haunted compositions of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. If you were in a backwoods bar in, say, a remote corner of Romania, and suddenly a band started playing this kind of music, you wouldn't be sure whether the regulars were going to dance, cry, or unsheathe their knives and rush your table.
Strangely, considering the un- or even anti-commercial nature of his music, Berner has become an in-demand artist internationally, with three European tours scheduled before July of this year alone. His popularity here and abroad can be credited to a number of things; for one, few other performers dare to face an audience with just a squeezebox, a few quips, and some stories. For another, he has captured the attention and support of Billy Bragg's manager, Peter Jenner. And Berner's songwriting talent has made fans of artists all over the world, many of whom have covered his tunes—including, most famously, the Be Good Tanyas. The Vancouver trio's version of his song "Light Enough to Travel" on its 2000 debut Blue Horse gave him a huge boost.
"That was what really enabled me to stop doing other kinds of work and just be a musician," he says. "It was a calling card I could put in letters asking for gigs in Canada. And the girls in the Be Good Tanyas helped me beyond just covering my songs. I owe them a lot."
Prior to launching his solo career, Berner fronted Terror of Tiny Town. The group ran amok in Vancouver for most of the '90s, releasing a couple of CDs but running into some bad luck on the business end of things.
"We were very eclectic," says the singer. "People we knew were listening to mix tapes, and all sorts of different styles, and our friends were no longer identifying with a particular subculture musically, so we tried different things—jazz and ska and heavy metal. We were open to lots of stuff. That made us largely unmarketable because we didn't have an identifiable sound, but we were amusing ourselves. I was no great shakes as a musician but everybody else in the band was really good, technically. They could really play. So I got to experiment with lots of different voices and ways of being musical. I feel like now I have found my mature voice as a songwriter, but I still think very fondly of that band and those guys."
Berner reflects that, if Terror of Tiny Town had been more successful, he might not have found that voice. Now that he has, though, he is on a mission—to drag klezmer music into the bars and make it dirtier, and more political.
"I feel sometimes in folk music the process of preservation can be like lamination, where we have to freeze everything in the year we all agree it was best," Berner continues. "A lot of people aren't aware klezmer and other Eastern European styles had that kind of guts to it originally." He returns to the subject of his trip to Romania, where his friend, musician and musicologist Bob Cohen, took him around and translated lyrics to some of the songs they'd hear, like "Mary's dancing is making my dick so hard I had to pour candle wax on it." That, says Berner, is not really something you'd hear on a disc by American klezmer faves the Klezmatics. Ever the diplomat, Berner adds, "Not to single them out."