Mongrel king of klezmer

Geoff Berner's new album, Klezmer Mongrels celebrates "mixing races, drinks, people and cultures."

Vancouverite Geoff Berner is touring his whiskey-soaked klezmer music to various watering holes across Canada. On February 20, he'll drain liquor bottles and toast "mazel tov!" with The Whiskey Kisses and IDOW darling Amy Honey at Gus' Pub to celebrate his latest album, Klezmer Mongrels.

"The album is about the value of a good bar to get people talking all kinds of things," says Berner, calling on the ways to Peterborough, Ontario. "So the ideas for the songs often come from what people tell me after the show when we're all having a bunch of drinks. I travel a lot. I play a lot of shows. I meet a lot of interesting people, and if you get them going they'll tell you the craziest stories."

City characteristics like architecture, landscape or population can inspire a writer, but a good bar is paramount. These late-night fixtures, most often found in seedy underbellies, cultivate counter-culture.

At the bar, Jameson Irish Whiskey is Berner's musical muse of choice.

"I find Irish whiskey is better than cheap scotch and cheaper than good scotch. There's a balance there."

In a city rich with diversity, heritage and culture, Toronto is notorious for being aloof as listeners---but wasn't on this evening.

"We are still in shock, really," he says, while his band mates Wayne Adams and Diona Davies banter about 401 East highway signs in the background. "I really thought I crossed into another dimension; or at least a different city, anyway.

"There is a temptation to taunt other cities with the fact that Toronto audiences, who are famously standoffish and arm-folding, did a conga line. It's a shaming kind of thing. I might haul it out as a shaming motivator, if necessary. Don't make me do that, though."

Berner describes his own hometown, Vancouver, as a paradoxical lyrical resource---the contradictions are vast, as there is an extreme gap between the rich and poor.

"The Downtown Eastside is kind of like where we sacrifice people in order to appease the materialistic gods that Vancouver worships," he says.

"Vancouver is the place where people move west to leave their past behind and reinvent themselves, so memory itself can be subversive in Vancouver. There is a general lack of collective memory there."

Drawing on his Jewish faith, yearning for community and love of drink, Berner tours extensively throughout North America and Europe, sharing his vision. His onstage crassness once earned the tag "potty-mouth Berner," in contrast to his calm, collected and colloquial conversational skills.

"It's an album about mixing, you know, about mixing races, drinks, people and cultures," he says. "It's just the idea that it's an anti-purity record. The folk purity that says, 'Well this is the rules of this kind of music and you must play it this way otherwise it's inauthentic. The record that flies in the face of that, it's also about people coming together and sharing difficult ideas with each other. It's about the value of a good bar to make those things happen."

Armed with an accordion, an astute wit and Jewish faith, Berner creates artful political satire. The musical gypsy has crafted an impressive discography, including: We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go On to the End (2003); Live in Oslo (2004); Whiskey Rabbi (2005) and Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride (2007). Klezmer Mongrels taps into the narratives of other people's lives. Instead of feeling isolated in his journey, Berner's found other like-minded strays.

"I've met a lot of people on the road that are of mixed-race heritage, who are having some trouble figuring out who they were because of the mix---maybe they're African American and Swiss, or Japanese and Norwegian," he says. "They are proud of all the elements of who they are. I wanted to make a record that was celebratory of that instead of bemoaning it in some way."

Geoff Berner w/The Whiskey Kisses and Amy Honey, Friday, February 20 at Gus' Pub, 2605 Agricola, 10pm.

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