Music Interview: whiskey rabbi’s sermon

By Garth Paulson

Playing in a band is a whirlwind experience. As new places whizz past the window of your tour bus, various people constantly rotate in and out of your social sphere to provide all sorts of opportunities to engage in questionable activities. Despite the undeniable allure of free booze, drugs and anything else you can imagine caution needs to be exercised–you might end up in a Romanian hospital.

This may sound like after-school public service announcement, but it actually happened to Canadian singer-songwriter-accordionist Geoff Berner.

At least he got a song out of the whole ordeal.

“My band and I were just trying to be culturally sensitive by drinking at the same rate as everybody else,” Berner explains. “Things got a little out of hand and I ended up puking in a chicken yard from about four in the morning to seven. I made the mistake of drinking some well water which might have had something in it. I found myself shitting my guts out in Dracula’s castle in the public toilet. I remember thinking this would seem kind of cool if I didn’t feel like I was going to die.

“Eventually they did take me to a hospital but Romanian hospitals are pretty different than Canadian hospitals. They’re kind of the way public hospitals would be in Canada if Ralph Klein had his way. Once I came to and realized I wasn’t going to die, this song kind of shot into my head. I literally did write it in the hospital on my discharge papers.”

The song in question turned out to be the aptly titled “Song from a Romanian Hospital,” one of the many highlights on Berner’s latest album, Whiskey Rabbi. A sometimes hilarious, often thought provoking album, it’s an always enjoyable journey through our twisted world. Within its tracks, Berner explores his Jewish roots in his adoption of a traditional klezmer sound, discovered on his trip through the rural areas of Romania. This sound mixed with Berner’s fiery delivery and controversial lyrics makes for a tantalizing blend of old and new, tradition and change.

“The new record is a drunken klezmer album,” he says. “Oddly that makes it more focused than the last record. I’ve been moving in the direction of doing more and more klezmer and this record is the first one I would refer to as a true klezmer record or more like a fucked-up klezmer record.

Demonstrating a startlingly powerful conviction, Berner overwhelms listeners with drunk ramblings, poignant lyrics and his jovial demeanour. Never one to shy away from a politically charged subject, Whiskey Rabbi contains some of Berner’s most powerful lyrics on such topics as religion, consumerism and advertising. The song “Lucky Goddamn Jew” walks the particularly thin line of a Jewish man criticizing Israel’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think people mainly get it,” Berner says. “I’ve had some walkouts at shows, but for the most part people understand exactly what I’m going for. The record only came out on Feb. 22 so there’s still time for people to hate it, but I just did the Ontario-Quebec leg of the tour and the venues have been jumping in size. There’s way more people who know the stuff, it seems like the record, and whatever is on it, is helping me so far.”

Though the subject matter of his songs may be dense, Berner’s live sets have the reputation of being an uproariously good time. A typical show includes unhealthy amounts of alcohol, copious amounts of humourous stage banter, some badass accordion solos, a whole bunch of dancing and a reminder of how being in a band is the best job in the world, even with the dangers.

“I don’t know if people expect me to be loaded to the point of incapacity, but it is nice to have a job where you get to drink,” he says. “Nobody’s going to fire me, but I’m not going to get so drunk that I can’t play. If you can’t play the songs well then you suck. I don’t generally go to that point, except maybe after the show.”


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