Singer/songwriter/accordionist/novelist Geoff Berner’s music combines klezmer (for the uninitiated, the folk music of Eastern European Jews), punk, political satire, and Balkan dance rhythms. He writes sharp, literate songs that make you want to weep, laugh, grind your teeth, or kick out a window – often all at the same time. A lot of famous people have covered his compositions. Look it up.
“We Are Going To Bremen To Be Musicians” is his first original album in four years. He says that it’s “meant to be powerful cheering-up medicine that you don’t have to turn your brain off for.”
Berner has built a serious cult following throughout North America and Europe by touring relentlessly through thousands of bars, cafés, and festivals. With his weirdly compelling stage presence, he has a strange ability to create fun chaos. He describes his typical audience members as “odd, bookish people who like to drink. There’s a surprising number of physicists.”
Berner counts himself as part of the “Klezmer Bund” movement of makers of Radical Jewish Culture, which includes artists like Daniel Kahn of Berlin, Psoy Korelenko from Moscow, and the rabble-rousing Jewdas group in London. The Klezmer Bund rejects orthodox and ultra-Zionist conservative notions of Jewish identity, and seeks to connect with the deep roots of left-wing Jewish thought in a way that’s entertaining and accessible for everybody.
Berner’s first album in that vein, “Whiskey Rabbi,” was released ten years ago, giving him a nickname that stuck. This new album, recorded in Vancouver, Canada, features most of the musicians from his previous release, the award-winning “Victory Party.” It was produced by Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, from Montreal. Socalled is himself a superstar of radical Jewish culture. “As with Victory Party, there really was nobody besides Josh who could have made this album with me,” says Berner. “His knowledge of both the recording studio and Jewish music is unmatchable.” Oriente Records of Berlin is the pre-eminent label in Europe for klezmer, and for the Klezmer Bund, too, so it’s a natural home for this album. In Canada, “Bremen” is part of the exciting roll-out of Coax Records’ new roster of artists for both its recorded music arm and booking agency.
“We Are Going To Bremen To Be Musicians” is a reference to the old German folk tale about elderly farm animals threatened with death, who run away from their masters in the hope of achieving freedom and becoming Town Musicians. It’s an absurd tale of irrational hope and optimism in the face of horror, and that’s where the story connects with the songs on the album. “I would describe the record as a compendium of strategies against despair,” says Berner.
Some of the strategies offered include: Love, as in the song “I Don’t Feel So Mad At God When I See You In Your Summer Dress;” Redemption, as described in “Swing A Chicken 3 Times Over Your Head;” and pure Schadenfreude, as depicted in “Dance And Celebrate (The Misfortunes of People We Hate).”