Geoff Berner’s accordion anarchy

By Kevin Rothbauer

Is the accordion the instrument of anarchy?

Those who saw Geoff Berner’s show in support of Kris Demeanor last Friday might think so.

Touring in the wake of his latest album We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go On to the End, Berner performed two sets of politically charged, bawdy, surprisingly emotional songs that, according to Berner, can make a wooden Jesus wink.

Though Berner makes it through Calgary every few months, it was one show here a few years ago that changed his life. Berner was a guest at the Calgary Folk Festival in 2001 and, well, the rest is history. Not only did he meet the woman who became the “love of my life,” he also made a few other notable acquaintances.

“I got to play with my idol, Billy Bragg,” he remembers. “Afterwards, I was approached by a white-haired English gentleman who turned out to be Peter Jenner, Bragg’s manager.”

Jenner, who also worked with the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, offered to represent Berner in the United Kingdom, possibly setting up a big break for the Vancouver-based songwriter.

If an affiliation with Billy Bragg, the Stones and Pink Floyd isn’t enough, Berner also claims a connection to late punk pioneer Joe Strummer. Vancouver’s Be Good Tanyas recorded a version of Berner’s “Light Enough to Travel” on their Blue Horse album. Strummer saw the Tanyas in concert and asked them for an autographed copy of the disc.

“Joe Strummer had a copy of my song in his collection when he died,” Berner says proudly. “I’d take that over 1000 Junos.”

Berner’s songs are about barflies, Prague, pornstars and the Maginot Line. His bizarre subject matter meshes well with his instrument of choice, which he picked up pretty much by accident.

“I was a honky-tonk piano player as a teenager,” Berner recalls. “When I was 19 or 20 I was drunk at a party, and I started complaining that it’s not fair that guitar players can busk and piano players can’t. ‘I should play accordion.’”

As it turned out, another guest at the party had an unused accordion that he gave to Berner.

“It started to take over my brain,” he confesses. “Playing the accordion changed the way I write. It changed my approach to music. The accordion has distinct aspects; anything you choose to play on it has a type of sadness. The accordion and I have worked things out.”

Because the accordion is unfamiliar to most, Berner encountered opposition to his performances early in his career.

“A middle-class fellow in Antwerp offered my three beers if I’d stop playing,” Berner laughs. “At Mickey Finn’s in Edmonton, they wouldn’t stop the video golf. Then the guys playing video golf complained to the management, and they asked me to stop.

“People were resistant–they hadn’t heard it before, so they didn’t want to hear it.”

Since then, Berner has developed a following of his own, which has increased with opening spots for such artists as Kris Demeanor and Corb Lund.

Berner is in the midst of a cross-country tour which will be followed by a trek to the UK and Norway, so he won’t be back in Calgary for a while. In the meantime, check out the MP3s on, where you can order We Shall Not Flag or Fail, We Shall Go On to the End. Berner stands by the fact that his songs will keep you entertained.

“I guarantee there isn’t a single boring song on the record.”

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