Event review: Geoff Berner at the Oval Tavern, 21st March

By - Tuesday 7th April, 2015

Always truth-telling, often subversive – John Lawlor listens adventurously at a gig in the Oval Tavern

Geoff Berner.
Photo by Anita Hillestad, used with permission.

Musically, Geoff Berner‘s is sometimes a dark, brooding, haunted sound; at other times it sings the cheeriness of cheesecake and dancing. Put them together and I’d say you get a kind of jolly melancholy, and a challenging listening experience at times. It was a Saturday night at the Oval: some people had come for the gig, some people hadn’t. Those that had were excited, but some of those that hadn’t proceeded to talk at the back of the busy pub throughout.

Geoff Berner is Jewish Canadian, from Vancouver, and deeply inspired. He has taken the klezmer accordion (beloved of Eastern European jewry), learnt the traditional tunes through deep immersion in the culture from which it arose, including a hospital stay in Romania, then applied his own personal (punk anarchic) vision to it.

The people who knew they were seeing something special were excited to be there. Geoff has played Croydon almost every year since 2005 and some of the audience had come down from Camden the previous night. But this is subtle stuff, and during the show I somehow just had the feeling of people not really ‘getting it’ – and of Geoff knowing this.

This was blasphemous, ironic and subversive in turn

I think it’s because, sadly, many people don’t listen to lyrics. If they do, then they get the more blatant things like ‘Maginot Line’, but I don’t think they really get the the ambivalent feelings about Jewishness or understand the personal symbols in Geoff’s work.

His lyrics are always truth-telling, often subversive, forged in the yiddish tradition and given his own twist – blasphemous, ironic and political in turn. A personal highlight of the evening was ‘Maginot Line‘ – sing-along and a heartfelt personal metaphor:

“So if you’ve got something you hold dear
And you’d hate to see it disappear,
You think that everything’s just fine,
Better check it one more time
And reflect upon the Maginot doom,
A perfect fortress makes a perfect tomb”

and another, ‘The Musicians of Bremen’:

“We’re on our way,
We’ll speak of death another day,
Our sacred feast,
Which we stole from the beast”.

There was also much about girls, including the quieter, touching line: “I don’t feel so mad at God/when I see you in your summer dress”, and the song ‘Condos‘, about the development of Vancouver with its flats and towers, for me a nod to Saffron Square and the Menta(l) tower planned for Cherry Orchard Road. And then came his finale, ‘Light enough to travel‘, a long-time Berner classic, still laden with emotion, and always sung in Croydon at the end of a UK tour.

You couldn’t get away with it nowadays

Above all a very kind man, he thanked (profusely) Esther Sutton, the landlady of the Oval Tavern, for hosting him for over ten years (starting in her days at The Green Dragon pub on the High Street), Carol Whinnom and Neil Woodcock for organising this and many other UK gigs past and present, and the DJs ‘Kosher Nostra’. And finally he gave some warm encouragement to the cultural renaissance in Croydon.

Afterwards I put to him the comparison with Randy Newman, whom he also admires, especially the chutzpah of ‘Rednecks‘ and ‘Short People‘. “You couldn’t get away with it nowadays”, he sighed.

Geoff will be back in Croydon at the end of May 2016, but in the meantime there will be a new album out on 2nd October.

John Lawlor

John Lawlor

I am a mindfulness enthusiast and co-founder of Croydon HeartWorks (www.heartworks.org.uk) organising and participating in community events with an emphasis on mindfulness, community, arts and fun.

More Posts - Website