State of the Arts: Fellow musicians pay tribute to beloved Berner

Singer-songwriter celebrated and roasted at WISE Hall event

Geoff Berner’s drinking is legendary so organizers of the annual ArtsWells Festival always scheduled a Sunday morning workshop of 10 accordions led by Berner as a cruel joke.

When Berner couldn’t make the festival in Wells, B.C. this summer, organizers scheduled a workshop of his songs led by accordionist Jack Garton and fiddler and songwriter Jeff Andrew.

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“It was a big success,” said Garton. “We got to pull out some songs of his that nobody had heard in years… We passed a bottle of whisky around in his honour and it was a good thing.”

Now Garton, Andrew and Accordion Noir (a Co-op Radio show and annual accordion festival Berner helped found) are bringing the tribute event to East Vancouver’s WISE Hall, Feb. 6, with an event called Bernerland: The Songs of Geoff Berner.

“We all love him and his songs so much, at lot of people in Vancouver, especially in East Vancouver, where we all went to the same open mics and are part of the community of musicians and songwriters,” Garton said. “He’s been having a rough time and it’s been a really hard year for Geoff Berner, so we thought, ‘What can we do to help out?’”

Berner’s dad died in September. His mom the year before, and his latest recording project has faced delays.

Ten artists and groups the musician has worked with and influenced will each cover three of their favourite Berner songs. The finale will see a super group perform a sing-along of “Light Enough to Travel,” a Berner song made popular by the Be Good Tanyas, along with his klezmer number about police brutality, “Dalloy Polizei (F*** the Police).”

“I’ve been part of organizing the Tom Waits tribute night that happened at Café Deux Soleils many years in a row, I’ve been part of Bob Dylan tribute nights and Neil Young tribute nights,” Garton said on the phone from Galiano Island. “And Geoff is a songwriter that we all happen to know, who’s not dead and who lives locally, but his songs are great and they’ve been the soundtrack to a lot of our lives, our parties and our festivals.”

Those gathering to cover songs by, and tell stories about, Berner, at what’s reportedly his favourite venue, include Rae Spoon from Calgary, Jason Webley from Seattle  and Victoria’s Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends, and Dave Lang and the Twin Oughtas. They’ll perform Berner’s songs alongside Jack Garton and the Demon Squadron, E.S.L., Ford Pier, the Burnettes, the Creaking Planks and Andrew.

“It’s kind of a celebration, kind of a roast, kind of a tribute and hopefully something to give him a little boost,” Garton said.

“There’s been no real problem with choosing songs,” Garton continued. “Everybody’s got a different Geoff.”

Berner’s oeuvre includes country, klezmer, punk, political and portrait songs.

“Some people like the funny songs or the shocking songs and some people like the elegiac songs, because he can write a beautiful portrait song or narrative song, as well,” Garton said. “Geoff is special. Most people would kill to have just one, one of those songs in their catalogue… that would be like a major accomplishment, but he’s got albums full of them.”

The Burnettes have selected songs from Berner’s ’90s punk band Terror of Tiny Town, Garton believes Pier is performing an early Berner song, “We All Gotta Be a Prostitute Sometimes,” and Garton’s band will bust out raucous and heavy renditions of ditties that include the title track from Berner’s 2011 album, Victory Party.

So how does the guest of honour feel about his upcoming tribute night?

“I’m a bit overwhelmed and nervous about it,” Berner said. “But it does feel pretty good. It feels like getting some kind of Juno [Award] or something like that.”

Berner, who also wrote the acclaimed 2013 novel Festival Man, admits to feeling anxious about the stories people might tell.

“I think there’s going to be some roasting,” he said. “There’s an inexhaustible storehouse of embarrassing anecdotes that those people could come up with.”

While salacious stories are sure to be part of the mix, Garton says every aspect of Berner is worth celebrating.

“Geoff is special,” repeated Garton, who was inspired to pick up the accordion by Berner. “Anybody who works with him knows that his talent in songwriting and his work ethic combined with a total not gives a f*** attitude is really rare... It’s worth celebrating. It’s worth imitating.”

Tickets are $15 in advance at the WISE Hall Lounge or, or $20 at the door. Proceeds from the event will go to WISH Drop-in Centre Society, which Berner selected. Doors 8 p.m. with the show starting at 9 p.m. at 1882 Adanac St.

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