It is often an uneasy surprise to see the person behind a voice for the first time. They rarely look or behave how we imagined they would and it can take the mind a while to reconcile the two realities. In the case of Stuart McLean, the voice of CBC’s Vinyl Café, it turns out there is no such disconnect. McLean is a trim man, immaculately but somehow still casually turned out in a three-piece suit, looking every bit the favourite uncle you expect him to be.
The Vinyl Café crew was in town Wednesday night at the Centre in the Square for their annual Christmas show.
McLean’s voice is as integral to the story as the characters. Its idiosyncratic timbre and cadence is the Pavlovian bell signaling to the audience that more of what it loved was on the way.
Like all good story-tellers, McLean is a keen observer and takes great joy in the small rituals which are the building blocks of social interaction. His eyes twinkle behind half glasses as he recounts for the thousandth time the outrageous but, crucially, still plausible escapades of Dave, Morley and the gang.
Although there were two new stories on Wednesday, much of the pleasure derived from listening to McLean comes from knowing how it’s going to play out. Dave and Morley are fictional but McLean’s gift is making us feel like we know someone just like them.
McLean goes out of his way to give air time to young Canadian artists. For this tour, the talent was east coast singers Jill Barber and Matt Andersen. Each sang one original song and a carol backed by the Vinyl Café trio and then joined forces for a few more seasonal numbers.
Barber’s voice is a curious combination of a smoky jazz alto and a precocious child. It takes some getting used to but in the end it works. Her original song, Chances, was arranged in an early 1950s rhythm and blues style and sung with a 1940s jazz voice. Again, it took a few bars adjust the ears but overall I rather liked the juxtaposition.
The real story of the night however, was Matt Andersen and O Holy Night. For once the critic and the audience were of one mind and the standing ovation was the only sensible choice.
O Holy Night is one of the few carols that gives a skilled singer the scope to show what they can do and as a result has become yet another Christmas cliché – an rather endearing one in the main but one nonetheless.
In light of this, what Andersen accomplished was very nearly miraculous – and also, it turns out, extraordinarily difficult to describe. He is a gifted singer but what made Andersen’s version so great was that, emotionally, he held nothing back. His voice is strong and flexible with a pleasing edge but, most importantly, is unusually expressive.
Here is Andersen singing his own song, So Gone Now.
For many people, the Vinyl Café Christmas show is a holiday tradition and it’s easy to see why. McLean’s observations are astute but not cutting, sentimental but not saccharine and even though he’s told the stories hundreds of times, it is difficult to imagine him ever growing tired. To spend 2 hours with McLean at the Vinyl Cafe is to see the world without malice – delighting in our foibles as much as we celebrate our successes – not a bad thing for which to aim during this season of goodwill…or ever for that matter.