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BIRDS HILL PARK -- Protest music and corporate advertising have always maintained an uneasy coexistence on the Winnipeg Folk Festival stage, but rarely have the two forms of expression clashed like they did on the weekend.

On the opening night of the Birds Hill Park event, a two-song mainstage performance by Vancouver musician Geoff Berner sent festival organizers scrambling to appease one of the evening's corporate sponsors, Volkswagen.

Berner, a singer and accordion player known for his acerbic politics, began his short set -- a "tweener" in Folk Fest parlance -- by performing his Official Theme Song For The 2010 Vancouver Whistler Olympic Games, a sarcastic ditty subtitled The Dead Children Were Worth It!

Berner's song, which skewers the $1.63-billion tab for the 2010 Olympics, claims the British Columbia government closed down a $4-million coroner's office that investigated the deaths of children, in order to help pay for the Winter Games.

After repeatedly singing "the dead, dead children were worth it," the musician turned to the Folk Fest mainstage audience of approximately 10,000 and reminded them Volkswagen was the evening's sponsor.

"And they agree with absolutely everything I say," Berner proclaimed.

Before the nervous laughter could subside, the musician then began performing Maginot Line, a song about the ill-fated French effort to stop the superior German army from invading during the Second World War.

Standing in front of a Volkswagen logo on the corner of the stage, Berner reminded the audience of the automaker's association with Adolf Hitler during the 1930s, when production of "the people's car" was promoted as a means of alleviating unemployment in Nazi Germany.

More nervous laughter emanated from the audience, but officials from Volkswagen -- who spent somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 to sponsor the 2008 Winnipeg Folk Festival -- were not smiling.

"We have apologized to Volkswagen," Folk Fest executive director Trudy Schroeder said on Saturday, noting Berner's performance highlighted the inherent risks involved in placing protest singers and corporate sponsors on the same stage.

"Those are both important aspects of this festival. We have community partners and we have freedom of expression.

"We can't control what artists say. But on the other hand, we can't have people taking potshots at organizations who are trying to help us."

Berner, for his part, said corporate sponsors know what they're getting into when they get involved with an event that has previously played host to protest singers and political musicians, including Billy Bragg, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bob Geldof.

"Obviously, a folk festival is a politically left-leaning event," said Berner, who led a Vancouver punk band and penned a single for B.C. folk trio The Be Good Tanyas before going solo. "But I was only trying to make a joke."

Berner said Folk Fest organizers did not try to censure him following his performance and he commended them for the support.

"That took some intestinal fortitude," he said.

Director Schroeder, who will leave the festival to take over the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra this fall, said there was no point in criticizing Berner after the fact.

"It's part of the risks of having people on stage who observe society. They are going to talk about what they observe," he said.

A spokesman for Volkswagen could not be reached for comment at the automaker's Canadian headquarters in Ajax, Ont.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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