Stuart McLean and Vinyl Cafe come to Banff

Not long after I met Alex, I was introduced to The Vinyl Cafe. This is a weekly show on CBC Radio, featuring the short stories of author and host Stuart McLean. It’s a wonderful show, and I try to listen to it as much as possible. With the weekly visits to the Calgary Farmer’s Market as of late however, I miss the show more often than I hear it.

The Vinyl Cafe is the name not only of the radio show, but also of the fictional store run by Stuart’s protagonist, Dave. Most of Stuart’s stories revolve around Dave and his family: wife Morley, daughter Stephanie, and son Sam. Not to mention most of their neighbours, friends, and relatives. The stories take place over many decades, going back to Dave’s childhood. There are a lot of stories to be heard, such as Dave’s experience cooking the Christmas turkey or Sam believing his mother is a shoplifter. Most of them are a tremendous mix of hilarity and seriousness. Some will put extreme strain on your bladder, others a tear to your eye.

Stuart is more than just a gifted story teller. He’s a music geek. This is very clear from the way he writes his stories that involve Dave and his love of music. It’s not popular music, it’s good music — great music. Music that I’ve rarely heard of. This love of music extends beyond his story-telling, and into his radio shows.

Except for the rare occasions where the show is done from a CBC studio, most of the Vinyl Cafe shows are recorded live in front of an audience. The shows are held across Canada on a series of tours. Stuart doesn’t do the show alone — though he could, if he needed to. Stuart’s love of music brings along mostly-unknown musicians to perform in between story tellings. (And even perform in some of the stories.)

I’ve seen the Vinyl Cafe live once before, at the Jubilee Theatre here in Calgary. It was the Vinyl Cafe Christmas show. It was my first introduction to the joy of seeing the radio show done live. (The Calgary show might have been recorded, but wasn’t the one broadcast. From what I gather, the shows sometimes have to be edited to account for things like flubs while reading the stories. The live shows are quite a bit longer than the radio shows (two hours vs. one hour).

Tonight, the Vinyl Cafe came to the Banff (Bamf!) Centre. Not exactly a local venue for Calgary, but it’s worth the drive. Stuart brought his regular musicians John Sheard and the bassist (whose name I sadly cannot remember). They back him up during the various segments of the show, such as the Story Exchange. John and Stuart usually also throw in a song and dance at the end, which is usually current news and politics thrown into a half-song, half-rap.

Stuart also brought along long-time Vinyl Cafe performer Suzie Vinnick as one of the two featured musicians, the other being newcomer Reid Jamieson. They came and went as Stuart weaved the stories of the evening. They also participated in a classic radio show recreation … one written by Stuart to be like the shows of yore, the ones who grew up with.

Front row centre seats. Pure fluke that I happened to get them. So close you could almost have received some of Stuart’s spittle when he got really animated. Which was most of the time. Stuart doesn’t just read — he performs. The story sits on a music stand, as Stuart’s arms fly about in all directions, sometimes adding to the story and sometimes just there. He reads exceptionally, adding levels of inflection and emphasis that one can only guess at if you’re only reading the story. Hearing it adds that extra level of meaning not normally present. (And for some reason, that includes Southern Albertans getting most of his innuendos. “They didn’t laugh at that in Ft. McMurray!”)

The shows are never long enough. A couple of stories of Dave and Morley, a Story Exchange, and Stuart’s radio show about Eggs Blackiron (complete with a basket of egg jokes). Soon it was all over, and all there was left was to go home. But rest assured that Stuart won’t be able to come back this way without me knowing about it, and I will be back. For there is always a reason to see the Vinyl Cafe.