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Stuart McLean in the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour last Friday. (The Globe and Mail)
Stuart McLean in the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour last Friday. (The Globe and Mail)

Review: Variety show

An authentic evening of improbability at the Vinyl Cafe Add to ...

Stuart's McLean's Vinyl Cafe Christmas At Convocation Hall in Toronto on Friday

It was Morley's idea to go see the Vinyl Cafe Christmas concert. " The Vinyl Cafe?," Dave asked. "Isn't that the radio show with the Guess Who guy?"

Morley, Dave's long-suffering wife, rolled her eyes. "No," she said, "that's Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap. McLean's Vinyl Cafe is a weekly program of homespun stories, folksy monologue and music - lots of music, usually from rising homegrown talent. It's a Canadian variation of NPR's Prairie Home Companion."

"Oh," Dave said.

He was about to ask her what NPR stood for, but decided against it. And he thought about asking why CBC Radio, in 2010, was so preoccupied with vinyl. But he thought better of that as well. Besides, the touring stage show was about to begin.

Onto a stage glowing with floor-set candles and a decorated Christmas tree, arrived Jackie Richardson, a graceful furnace of a performer. Under a subtle spotlight she offered a carol a cappella, feelingly. "It came upon the midnight clear," she sang, "that glorious song of old." Her voice was strong, and though it did break once, it was a good break - like the cracking open of a heated stick of French bread.

A cart of Cape Breton coal couldn't have warmed the stage more efficiently for McLean, the lanky, suit-wearing storyteller. He welcomed the audience, telling them what to expect: music and new Dave and Morley stories. Hearing that, a confused Dave nudged Morley. "Is he talking about us?," he asked. "Shush," was all Morley said. "Shush."

The first story wasn't one of the new ones. It had to do with an immigrant couple's bewilderment with Western holiday traditions. McLean, bespectacled, delivered his tales Jimmy Stewart-like and assertively, with the lines coming in waves, accentuated by gesturing arms, nervous legs and occasional pauses.

Dramatic pauses.

Performing next was Matt Anderson, a miracle tower of wide-mouthed, deep-bottomed sound. Backed by piano and standup bass, the giant New Brunswick singer-guitarist reached the rotunda roof with People Get Ready, a gospel number about faith, trains and all-aboard journeys.

One of the Dave-and-Morley stories concerned a farcical hospital visit. It was blindingly implausible, as most of McLean's exaggerated yarns are. He piles up his teetering, amusing plots with improbability after improbability, and yet his fans buy in.

They probably bought into McLean's next ploy as well. He made a big show of raising the lights and giving crowd members a few copies of his books and various CDs, all in the spirit of thanks and "collaboration" with his audience. The merchandise, wouldn't you know it, was available for sale in the lobby during the intermission.

McLean prefers to sell the sturdier hardcover versions of his older books, too - not the flimsy, cheaper paperbacks they hawk at the fancy-pants book stores. No sir.

After the break, McLean ran lickety-split through a medley of seven abbreviated stories, as suggested by the people in the seats. More music followed.

With his jacket doffed and his sleeves rolled up, the wood-fired raconteur then unwound the night's concluding Dave-and-Morley tale - one that dealt with repentance, restitution, a chopped-down Christmas tree and the passing on of values from father to son.

After a closing sing-along version of White Christmas, Dave turned to Morley. "I don't understand," he said. "The stories are about us, and yet they're fiction. Aren't we real?"

"Of course we're real," Morley replied. "Look around you."

Dave glanced as ordered, and what he saw was as authentic as could be: Many hundreds of Daves and Morleys, standing on their feet, clapping up the night's cozy presentation of woolly story and uplifting song.

McLean's annual revue, like a holiday dinner, is extremely filling. And if all the turkey and trimmings are too rich and hokey by half, it's not a problem. Pass the gravy and warm the pie; the diet starts tomorrow.

The Vinyl Cafe Christmas tour continues to London, Ont., Monday and Tuesday; Kitchener, Ont., Dec. 15 and 16; Chatham, Ont., Dec. 17; Ottawa, Dec. 18 and 19; and Hamilton, Dec. 20.

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