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SLCR #182: Stuart McLean (December 5, 2012)

When I write concert reviews, I like to listen to the artist in question. I’m not sure if it would work so well if I was just listening to stories instead of music, but it doesn’t matter. Mika has discovered Songza, and we’ve spent the last two days listening to nothing but the hits of the 90s. Two full days of How Bizarre, Walking in Memphis, In the Meantime, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, Machinehead, Cumbersome, Counting Blue Cars, One Headlight, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s has done nothing to put me in the Christmas spirit. That it’s the middle of January isn’t helping matters either. Better get the headphones and the Christmas music and get this underway.

I don’t know if going two years in a row is enough to make the Vinyl Cafe Christmas concert a “tradition,” exactly. My dad thinks we go every year, and I have no reason to think that we won’t go again this year, so I guess it’s as good as descriptor as any. In keeping with tradition, the format of this year’s show was almost exactly the same as last year’s. The core of the show is Stuart McLean telling Dave and Morley stories – some new, some old favourites – interspersed with songs by the Vinylettes and a guest musician. At about the halfway point of the show, McLean chats with the audience and gives away books and CDs to the youngest and oldest people in attendance. He also introduces the band and gives them a bit of the spotlight for themselves, he leads the Vinylettes in a medley of Christmas songs, and everyone in the show joins in the closing number. About the only significant change this year was replacing the listener-submitted story (maybe they only do those when they’re recording the show for radio?) with a song by a local contest winner.

I don’t listen to enough Vinyl Cafe to know which stories were reruns, so they were all new to me. We got Dave making snow (this was the best of the bunch; we heard an older, extended version of this one over our Christmas vacation), Dave and Stephanie going on a yoga retreat (I wasn’t a fan of this one – too many poop/fart jokes), and the family having Christmas dinner with Stephanie’s boyfriend’s family. As ever, I won’t go into details so as not to spoil anything for you – check the CBC podcasts on iTunes if you want to hear any of these for yourself.

Last year, the guest musician was Hawksley Workman which was what inspired me to go to the show in the first place. Before this year’s show, Mika read some reviews online, and I guess Hawksley was not necessarily appreciated by everyone. I’m not overly surprised; the Vinyl Cafe crowd skews old and Hawksley’s a weirdo. This year, the guest musician was Reid Jamieson. His songs were a lot more straightforward and traditional. Less interesting for me, but probably a better overall fit for the show. Both Jamieson and Workman have toured with the Vinyl Cafe repeatedly in the past; I bet it will be either Jill Barber or Danny Michel’s turn this year.

And… that’s about all I have to say about the evening, really. This might be a record. It’s not that I didn’t have a good time – the stories were generally entertaining, the songs were well done, and the show as a whole is a nice way to kick off the Christmas season. It was just so similar to the previous year’s show that I don’t have anything to say. I had originally thought that it would be funny to just copy and paste last year’s review with a handful of edits; in retrospect, that idea was a solid one. Maybe I’ll do that next year and see if any of you are paying attention. Or maybe I’ll just go to the show and not bother reviewing it. Or maybe the next Christmas concert will be some kind of drug-fueled bacchanalia that culminates with McLean being shot naked out of a cannon into the audience and I’ll have no choice but to report back to all y’all.

SLCR 164 – Stuart McLean – December 6, 2011

The best way I can explain Stuart McLean to my American friends is to say that he's similar to Garrison Keillor. Unfortunately, I've never actually heard any Garrison Keillor, so maybe I'm very wrong. One sentence in and I may have just corrupted this review for an entire nation. Please don't make me explain Stuart McLean to Azerbaijanis.

Stuart McLean hosts a radio show called The Vinyl Cafe where he tells humourous, heartwarming, folksy stories, usually about one specific family. I looked it up and the family's last name has never actually been said, which would have been helpful to know before I started that last sentence. I was going to say "about the _______ family" but had to abruptly change course. It reads a bit awkward now. Anyway, McLean criss-crosses Canada, telling stories and hosting musical guests at live shows recorded for the CBC. Every December, he embarks on a special Christmas-themed tour. I've always liked his stories and wanted to go to one of these shows. When I found out that Hawksley Workman would be this year's musical guest, I wasn't about to pass it up.

McLean took the stage with no fanfare to surprise us with the news that the Regina show was the one Christmas show that would be recorded for play on the CBC. Of course, he encouraged loud crowd reactions for the recording, and he got them. In fact, some folks were only too eager to participate. It should be no surprise that the audience for a CBC storytelling show would skew old, but you can still get those people to make some noise. In fact, on two separate occasions, McLean merely had to say "Dave cooked the turkey" to get people hooting like when the lead singer at a rock concert says the name of the city he's in.

At our show, McLean's first two stories were about Sam bringing home the class ferret, and Dave taking their neighbour's car through the car wash. You've either heard these stories already or, more likely, this last sentence meant nothing to you. I've done reviews of spoken-word gigs before and I really don't like to go into the details of what was said – they're not my stories to tell. I've had too many movies ruined for me because someone felt the need to tell me all the good parts beforehand. I mean, I don't imagine anyone will ever read this and be inspired to track down the full stories, but there's always a chance, you know?

Having said that, I do know that keeping the details to myself makes those stories sound pretty dull. I suppose this is a review, allegedly, so I should review the stories. The car wash one was funnier. There.

Neither of these stories were really ABOUT Christmas, unlike the evening's third story; a tale of Dave's childhood and the hockey game he wanted for Christmas one year. It and the Story Exchange story (where McLean reads a story sent in by a listener) made it onto the final radio broadcast.

Before the show, McLean pointed out that since they were taping this show, he might have to re-read a few lines if something got flubbed. There was one spectacular point where he producer rushed the stage to let him know that Dave's age accidentally changed by several years. I'm a little sad this didn't make it into the final airing.

Through the night, the stories were interspersed with songs by Hawksley Workman. I knew from previous Christmas radio shows that we weren't likely to get a lot of Hawksley throughout the evening, and indeed, he only sang a handful of songs. They were all off his Christmas album, Almost A Full Moon, so that was neat – I've never heard most of those songs played live before. I know we got the title track and Three Generations – those made it into the radio broadcast – and he also played Common Cold. I think there was a fourth and I think it was First Snow Of The Year, but I'm not 100% certain there.

Hawksley opened up by telling a long story about his grandmother, whom he was very close to. He's a very entertaining storyteller – mayhaps he can take over for Stuart McLean someday – but I think the funny stories may have confused the audience. I know he can be an oddball when he wants to be, but the crowd sure seemed to like to laugh during his songs at parts that weren't funny. "LOL," said the senior citizens, "he's listing soup ingredients!"

Along with everything else, there was a 12 Days of Christmas segment which felt a bit long to me and was probably the weakest part of the evening, in my opinion. We got a Christmas carol medley by the pianist – spoiler: everyone loves A Charlie Brown Christmas – and McLean also spent time giving away books and CDs to the youngest and oldest folks in the audience. Some of the kids were really cute. Maybe some of the old folks were too? I mean, I didn't see them, but it would be rude to assume otherwise.

Going to the show was the first Christmassy thing I did this year, and I can see why people would make this a tradition. It was a lighthearted evening of music and family and all of those good Christmas things. The broadcast version of the show is available free on iTunes under Vinyl Cafe in the CBC podcasts. It's missing a fair bit from the two-and-a-half-hour show that we got, but it hits the highlights – you should go check it out, just in time for… January. I really need to get on these things sooner.

Upcoming shows:
 – February 4: Norm Macdonald which I probably won't write a review for
 – March 14: Electric Six
 – March 28: John K. Samson w/Shotgun Jimmie
 – August 10-12: Regina Folk Festival

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