Geoff Berner – Festival Man (Book Review)
Geoff Berner is probably the finest songwriter to come out of Vancouver’s music scene, and it should come as no surprise to anybody who’s followed his career that the singer had a novel in him. Berner’s songs are filled with quirky characters who live life not exactly on the fringes of society, but certainly not in any world that could be defined as conventionally normal. In the endlessly charming “Clown & Bard” — the opener to a tale of a drunken night spent in Prague — he sings:
It don’t fool me ’cause I can see
all this beauty’s just a trap set to kill
and she grabs my hand takes it
let me show you the lights from the top of the castle hill
Festival Man is Berner’s debut novel, though not his first book — an earlier booklet was accurately titled How to Be an Accordion Player, and promised nothing less. Its fictional follow-up is quite different, and draws from Berner’s years of touring Canada’s festival circuit for inspiration.
The novel sees his fictional protagonist Campbell Ouinette putting forth his memoirs for all to read. Centering around an imaginary year at the Calgary Folk Fest, Ouinette tells the story of his headlining act tasting success and abandoning him without warning. Chaos ensues, as he tries to avoid not only cancelling the gig but even telling anyone about it, while simultaneously trying to advance the careers of the original backing band by keeping them in the festival.
A literal reading of Ouinette’s name translates from French as “yes clear”, and that’s as good a description of any of the roles the character plays in the story. Ouinette seems to see himself in the role of a musical bullshit detector, convinced that his idea of music that challenges the audience is the right one. “Festivals are good for that sort of thing”, he says bluntly, after describing an encounter between a suit-wearing corporate type and a performance of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. It’s Ouinette’s conviction in his rightness that drives the story as it moves from scene to scene.
It’s tempting to read a lot of Berner into Ouinette. Like his character, he shares a conviction for music that doesn’t easily fit a format or description. With the accordion thrust front and centre, his own performances can be polarizing. (I have an ex-wife who did not, let’s say, appreciate Berner’s first solo album as much as I did.) But, fans are dedicated. While it’s hard to imagine that Berner himself doesn’t inject a bit of his persona into the Ouinette character, don’t sell the man’s imagination short; there’s more fiction here than reality, but that doesn’t make the book any less compelling.
If history is in any way just, Festival Man will land a place on the shelves of music lovers anywhere, beside well worn copies of classics like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music. It puts forth a sharply written, easily read, and scathingly funny picture of the folk festival scene in Canada. Make no mistake, though; it’s a scene that Berner loves, and you should never miss a performance if he comes to town. Spend a weekend with the book before he gets there. You’ll appreciate the stories.
As a bonus, the book includes a download of an accompanying album of the same name that sees Berner’s friends covering some of his works. His songs have been covered by many — the Be Good Tanyas had a major hit with “Light Enough to Travel” — and there’s some fine work here. Carolyn Mark lends a cover of “Prairie Wind” that’s just beautiful, while the Grade 5/6 class of Mr. Johnson gives the heart wrenching lyrics of “Iron Grey” a charming turn.
Festival Man is available in quality independent bookstores, though those are getting hard to find. If you can’t find it nearby you can always order a copy from Amazon. The album is available on iTunes, but a download is included with the book as well, so just buy it instead.