It was warmer than made sense for a January night in the brimming Blacksheep Inn. A one-man wildfire swayed on stage through a whiskey-fuelled history lesson over the wail of his trusted accordion. The blaze of Geoff Berner quickly spread across the crowd, burning his name into minds and branding absent evildoers with white-hot judgement.
"We're on our way, we'll speak of death another day," the Klezmer prince opened. The title track from his 2015's We Are Going to Bremen to be Musicians was as close to light-hearted as his set got all night. Based on the fairytale of a donkey, dog, cat and rooster who leave their masters to become famous musicians in Bremen, Germany, he created his sixth LP as a book of songs meant to be read between the lines.
"This album is just many different strategies to counter despair," he offered. Then he launched into a cathartically malicious song about celebrating the failures of the people he hates. Extreme and hilarious Schadenfreude burned politicos in verbal effigy as he listed off the misfortunes of his least favourite people.
"Don't laugh yet," he yelled, abruptly ending his verse on Joe Stalin before the punchline. "You jumped the gun, I need a more disciplined audience!"
Without any backing band, he was still able to hush a loud crowd with little more than an accordion moan and the whisper of his song. Then, for good measure, he shrieked like Jim Morrison performing an exorcism, just to ensure that nobody's attention was slipping. An unnecessary precaution, since all were rapt during the poignant "King of the Gangsters," as they were during a Yiddish version of "Always Crashing in the Same Car" by David Bowie ("Ikh Krakh Tomid Arayn In Der Zelber Mashin" from We Are Going to Bremen).
He even pointed out a special guest at one point, as pondered the proper pronunciation of Russian writer Isaac Babel's last name and called on his producer Josh "Socalled" Dolgin in the crowd for confirmation.
Nearly every song felt like a sing-along, but none more so than the Waltz about France's "Maginot Line." "Stupid! Stupid! You were Wrong!" cried the sweating crowd. Then, offering to cleanse the collective palette from a build-up of depressing themes, Berner offered a redemption song called "Swing A Chicken 3 Times Over Your Head" — going so far as to present it as the next "Gangnam Style".
"I keep checking my watch to know when it'll be time for that beach house in Malibu," he mused. "But, I don't know." Between his deadpan delivery and pleasantly macabre anecdotes, Berner also made sure to thank the owner of the Inn, Paul Symes, sometimes dubbed the Duke of Music in Canada.
Berner closed his set with the first song he ever played at the Blacksheep Inn — back in 2002, when he was opening for Corb Lund. "Clown & Bard" was as evocative as any lament he's performed to this day, and still sounds just as gritty as the path that has since led him into the lore of Canadian music.
"I've been Geoff Berner," he eventually said, toasting the audience. "And you've been wonderful."
And even though his blaze turned to ember, the heat lingered long after he buckled his squeezebox shut and signed off.