Here in Canada we have a wonderful, and distinctively Canadian, thing called the CBC. Sure, other countries have public radio/television, and they certainly do tell the stories of their nations in myriad ways, but our CBC radio programming holds a very special place in my heart and mind. (The television programming is also good, but I admit I spend more time with the radio shows than the tv, generally speaking).
Our current federal government is attempting to dismantle this national treasure a little bit at a time. But the producers and presenters of our unique (though often very different, regionally speaking) way(s) of looking at our country and the world continue charging forward- and looking back- telling our stories and creating little pieces of wonder as they keep on keeping on.
One of these incredible people is Stuart McLean. His Vinyl Café stories have been a fixture on CBC radio for close on 20 years. His variety show highlights Canadian singer-songwriters- artists whose work might otherwise not get a whole lot of airtime- and intermingles music, humour and an almost nostalgic sense of Canada and its people- in all our often-messy glory.
Stuart is a rarity these days. He’s a born storyteller- his distinctive voice and presence make you feel like you’re sharing a drink with a close friend. Who just happens to have a never ending supply of amazing tales to recount. Tales about characters that have grown in familiarity to the extent that they become like members of the family. Relatives that you are pleased you only have to visit a few times a year, perhaps, but continuing sources of hilarity and well-learned life-lessons.
At the heart of the show is Stuart’s primary literary comic foil- Dave, the owner of an independent record store in Toronto, and the trouble he seems endlessly able to attract. In abundance.
Dave and his family- his long-suffering wife, Morley, children Sam and Stephanie- along with an incredible cast of neighbours and friends, find themselves in some pretty far out situations. But no matter the extremity of the circumstance, those of us familiar with Dave and his antics easily, and willingly, suspend our disbelief in our awareness that ‘it’s just Dave. Of course such things can happen to him.’
Every year the great folks behind the Vinyl Café take their Christmas show on the road and make a stop here at home. A visit with Stuart and his compatriots has become an annual holiday event for me and some of my peeps. Friday night they rolled into the Sony Centre and, as usual, had us rolling in the aisles. My face still hurts from all the laughing.
Audience participation is encouraged, and the way that Stuart feeds off the energy of his audience helps guide the shape of his shows. He allowed as how they were genuinely happy to be home after 24 days of taking the show across the country (and down into a few select towns in the States)- a sentiment he reinforced when a part of his first story- the part about kindergarden children tumbling off of the stage during the school holiday pageant- brought down the house- anticipatorily. Apparently that part of the tale was met with shocked silence in more PC towns like Vancouver.
Toronto has a slightly more irreverent sense of humour, it would seem (we must. Look at our mayor. HE made it into the show, too. Not in a flattering light- go figure). We love the old favourites, but one of the best things about attending the Christmas shows live and in person is hearing the new stories, freshly minted, and Stuart gave us two on Friday.
But we also revisited ‘Morley’s Christmas Concert’ and the discombobulated, but completely intact, tumbling children who were left in the dark when Dave’s sound system took out the school’s power grid. And after Intermission, Stuart had a sit down with us, and together we remembered the highlights from all our favourite holiday stories. ‘Dave Cooks the Turkey’, of course. And ‘Dave on the Roof’– about the perils of the Canadian winter and the ways in which our slightly defiantly perverse instincts can get the best of us. Despite the fact we know better (DO NOT stick your tongue on anything metal- especially while up on the roof repairing the tv antenna. Really. Just don’t.)
The musical guests this year were a wonderful trio of ladies called The Good Lovelies, whose harmonies and hauntingly beautiful rendition of Sara Bareilles’ Winter Song very much reflected the quiet and the melancholy of the snow that had covered the city that day. Yet we were warm, inside, and with friends, so the plaintiveness of the song could be felt at a remove rather than with its full, sad immediacy.
A night with Vinyl Café is always enjoyable on many levels, but one of the things that makes me most appreciate our annual visits is the fact that so many children are present to participate. In this day and age. With all the visual and technological interfaces available to them, the fact that there are children who can still appreciate the wonder and the value of a storyteller, coming to them over the radio (or via a podcast), without anything flashing or shaping their images of the characters or the settings other than Stuart’s description alone.
Every year I applaud those parents who have raised children that can be engaged by the sound of his voice, recounting the most recent adventures of a bunch of crazy Canadians (or flashing back to earlier stories), as they use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks- and people the stories with their own variations and appearances.
Storytelling of this sort is both communal and very personal. I know what Dave and his family look like to me. They’ve changed- grown older- as I’ve gotten to know them over the years of listening to their life- often in kitchens, as dinner preparations where underway. Would I recognize them, if I passed them on the street? About that, I’m not sure. But I’d know them by their actions- both the silly antics and the wonderful, well-meaning heart that lies at the centre of all their interactions with their friends, family and neighbours.
They have taught me lessons. They have made me laugh. And tear up from time to time, too. Stuart has made them fully realized.
He ended our evening by returning to the stage with his long-time touring musical director, John Sheard. Together they sang a song. that John wrote, about the holidays- and what they would really like for Christmas. This wonderful, wonderful tune contained references to Harper’s prorogation of Parliament, the Senate debacle, Rob Ford, Don Cherry, the federal government’s actions re. the CBC… Straight minutes of nothing other but laughter. Canadian laugher. FOR us, BY us. We were still laughing as we headed out into the cold of Front Street.
I have a whole bunch of podcasts of the show to catch up with. Somehow there aren’t enough hours in the day to do/read/watch/listen to everything that needs to be done/watched/read/listened to- especially at this time of year. But the next hour I have free (or make the time to have free), I will decide to just sit, and listen, and fully experience Stuart’s incredible gift with story- its creation and its delivery. The holidays ARE supposed to be about time spent with friends, after all.
Please allow me to introduce you to my friend, Stuart McLean. I trust you will get along famously.