When you think about concerts, one word comes to mind: books.
I had a few shows already scheduled for Calgary when this thing popped up on Facebook and it sounded pretty neat. As part of a week-long festival of words by the name of Wordfest, there was a concert-slash-reading featuring musicians-slash-authors Geoff Berner, Rae Spoon, Kris Demeanor, and Caroline Connolly. There are readings and other events with all kinds of authors all week long; this particular session was called “How to Be... Wordy & Wild” and it was at the Big Secret Theatre downtown, where I first saw Hawksley Workman’s play The God That Comes a few years back.
I didn’t catch this initially, but that “How to Be” up there was selected because these are (mostly) the authors of the How to Be series of booklets. I am slow. But sometimes I get there eventually.
Or sometimes I get there early. The Big Secret Theatre is only two LRT stops away; for some reason, I still felt I needed to leave my grandma’s place over an hour beforehand to make sure I wasn’t late. This put me downtown with too much time to kill. I found a Tim Hortons and ordered a hot chocolate and played iPhone games until I could wander over at a more appropriate hour. The hot chocolate was both chocolatey and exceptionally hot; I wasn’t convinced it was going to cool off in time for me to make it to the show, but I powered through because I am an intrepid reporter and I am committed to my tasks. Unless I’m sleepy or it’s cold out or I just change my mind about going.
Let’s meet our authors. Klezmer punk accordionist Geoff Berner shows up regularly in these here reviews. He wrote the first volume in the series, How to Be an Accordion Player. Note that this booklet will not teach you how to play the accordion. It’s called How to Be an Accordion Player. This is an important distinction. Berner opened the event by explaining how the book series came to be; namely, they were commissioned by a shadowy, possibly Lithuanian, possible billionaire who may or may not have been in attendance.
Singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor is someone whose name I’ve heard forever but had never had the chance to see him perform before. He was Calgary’s inaugural poet laureate and he works with inner-city youth, so his booklet is titled How to Be an Asshole of Calgary.
The last time I saw Rae Spoon, it was probably 15 years ago and they were performing in the basement of a Cajun restaurant in Saskatoon. Since then, they’ve released a number of albums and gone on to widespread critical acclaim. I remember very little about that last show and I don’t have my old reviews immediately accessible (for which I’m thankful, as I probably sounded like a real dope), but I was really looking forward to the chance to see Spoon again. I also really miss that restaurant. Spoon’s booklet, the newest release of the four, is How to (Hide) Be(hind) Your Songs.
Caroline Connolly is an Alberta musician from a band called The Lovebullies. She also makes and sells gluten-free perogies, which is the noblest of callings. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never written a book. I feel like if she had, this would have come up. Carolyn Mark did, and it’s called How to Be a Boozy Chanteuse, which is how she was described in the New York Times. Mark was unable to attend, away “at an undisclosed location, doing very important things, like her hair,” so Connolly filled in for her. Mark did send her guitar, but upon inspection, it was just a guitar case filled with wine bottles and underwear. I’ve seen Carolyn Mark a few times and I’m 100% prepared to believe that this was legitimate and not a comedy bit.
The format was pretty simple; “like a folk festival workshop where no work gets done,” said Berner. They all took turns reading, then they read some more but also sang some songs, and then more reading and songs. The order was Berner > Connolly > Demeanor > Spoon > repeat, but folks would play and sing on each other’s songs.
You can probably infer how the readings went by the titles of the books. I mean, each booklet is about how to be something, so that’s what they talked about. And you may have also gathered that these are not super-serious instruction manuals for your life. Except maybe they should be? Spoon’s seemed the closest to being sincere, but all four authors got great laughs from the crowd - and, at times, from each other. Berner in particular has great comedic timing when telling stories.
He also nearly shot beer out his nose when Demeanor read the following lines about Calgary: “At the time of writing, our city is going through hard times. Aleppo hard.” Demeanor’s book seems like it might have the most laugh-out-loud potential of the four.
As for the songs, Connolly kicked it off with Mark’s tune 2 Days Smug and Sober, with Demeanor on guitar (and I believe Berner on accordion for this one). I really like this song and hadn’t heard it in forever. She did a fine job even if she needed a lyric sheet for reference.
I will break here to mention that if you have Apple Music, you can search for my SLCR 2017 playlist which features most everyone I’ve seen in concert this year. I had to make the hard choices about whether or not to include 2 Days on it, since Mark didn’t actually play here, but I ruled in favour of adding it to the list since I like it. It’s good to be the guy who makes rules.
Demeanor was up next with his song Liquidation World, which he played in lieu of reading the chapter of his booklet entitled How to Shop Like an Asshole. With witty lyrics and great guitar playing, I immediately decided I like this guy.
I couldn’t add Spoon’s first song to my playlist since it isn’t being released until next year. This made me sad because it’s called Do Whatever the Fuck You Want and I think this song presents some solid life advice. It also has a bridge where they spell out exactly what the song is about, so as to avoid any sort of misinterpretation. It was observed that Born in the USA should have had a bridge for that exact purpose. Spoon also noted that the more folk festival-friendly version of the song, Do Whatever the Heck You Want, is a big hit with children. I can totally see that.
Berner’s first tune was Hustle Advisory, off his brand new record Canadiana Grotesquica. It also has plenty of f-bombs in it and I’ve caught myself humming it all day. I’m not sure grandma approves.
The next round of songs was Swang Swang (or possibly Swing Swing said with a flourish?) by Connolly, which was one of her own, not Mark’s. Demeanor had the best title of the night with his next song, The Drunk You Is You. Spoon played their song Cowboy, and Berner covered Mark’s song Edmonton, one of my favourites of hers. The mention of Edmonton actually raised a gasp from one person in the audience, which Berner called attention to (“Yes. A sharp intake of breath.”) before encouraging us all to be open to learning about other cultures.
These were all interspersed with more readings, where we learned about asshole role models, how a boozy chanteuse should dress (if police aren’t suspicious, you’re not trying hard enough), Stalin, and how you can talk about Jesus when you secretly mean Carla. There was also some audience participation as we debated the pronunciation of halcyon and deigning (which I knew) and fecund (which I’m still not certain of).
After a round of very exuberant plugs for books and upcoming concerts, Spoon closed out the show with another excellently named song, My Heart is a Piece of Garbage. Fight Seagulls! Fight! This was picked to end the show since it references the Calgary Tower, only blocks away.
They were selling stuff and signing stuff after the show, so I went on a shopping spree. I already had Berner’s booklet from long ago, so I got the other three. They were $10 each or four for $30, so I picked up a second copy of How to be an Asshole of Calgary, since Colin just moved here last year and he could probably still use some advice. Demeanor kindly signed both copies and Spoon signed theirs as well.
While I didn’t need Berner’s booklet, I did pick up his new novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, days before its official release. His previous novel, Festival Man, was a great read so I’m really looking forward to this one. I got it signed too because I’m a dork like that.
This whole show was a goddamn delight and I smiled the whole time. What great, talented folks. Go see them all and go buy their books.