122108 The Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert featuring Stuart McLean, Ottawa, ON

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I’ve long been a fan of Stuart McLean and his CBC radio show Vinyl Cafe.  I won’t say I tune in every Sunday (though I used to), but there’s nothing quite like lazily tidying up the house or making a late breakfast on a cozy Sunday afternoon while Stuart tells one of his Dave and Morley stories.  Wielding his voice with an even steadiness equal to Norman Rockwell’s paintbrush, McLean effortlessly frames situation after situation steeped in wholesome, bumbling yet sincere comedy drenched in nostalgia and an almost Little House On The Prairie sort of romanticism.

In case you’re unfamiliar, here is the standard plot synopsis of Stuart McLean’s Dave & Morley stories:

Dave screws up yet again while daughter Stephanie sits in her dorm room far away dreaming of her childhood and longing for Christmas.  Meanwhile supermom Morley sits in the basement sifting through an old box of letters or socks or some such thing avoiding the foibles of both her ever-fumbling husband who always has the best of intentions and her young son Sam as he gets up to wholesome no good that invariable teaches him an invaluable life lesson.

Basically take your warmest and fuzziest feeling and mix it into a huge mug of warm hot chocolate.  Hold it with both hands and sit under a blanket by a crackling fire surrounded by napping squirrels, bunnies, and other forest animals.  That’s the vibe Stuart is going for with the Dave & Morley stories.  

In addition to being an avid listener I also have several of Stuart’s books (of Dave & Morley stories) and a few CD’s too, but it wasn’t until December 21st, 2008 that I finally made the mistake of seeing Stuart live, as his Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert rolled into Ottawa for its annual stop at the National Arts Centre.

The Vinyl Cafe CBC show is generally (though not always) a rebroadcast of a live concert.  The concerts feature a musical guest and Stuart’s own house musicians, and of course the host always tells one of his famous stories.  In person the show plays out very much like the edit you hear on the radio – intro/local story/musical guest/story exchange (“We’ll read everything you send us and read some of our favourites on the radio”)/house band with musical guest/Dave & Morley story – though with a few extra songs from the musical guest to stretch things out to ninety minutes or so.

And while I enjoyed the show, I’m really sorry I went.  Seeing Stuart read the story live just ruined it for me.  I had never envisioned him reading them, I’ve always heard the stories with a disembodied voice in my mind, always imagining the actions described and not the describer.  It’s not like I didn’t know what he looked like or anything; this wasn’t the same disappointment I felt when I was a kid and I saw my local radio DJ through the glass when I visited CKCW and discovered he looked nothing at all like what I had imagined. It’s more that I had never pictured anyone when I listened to Dave & Morley stories (except Dave and Morley).

But now Stuart is all I can see in my mind when I listen to the CBC on Sunday afternoon.  Instead of picturing Sam or Stephanie or even the Turlington’s next door I can only see Stuart McLean standing there motionless and boring, reading the story from pages set before him on a music stand and signalling the story’s end by holding his hand up to the audience, palm out.  Instead of seeing Morley looking at Dave with love in her eyes as he stands helplessly in their destroyed kitchen or lays apologizing from a hospital bed now I only see lanky, awkward Stuart McLean standing there holding his hand up to the audience like a crossing guard trying to stop a bicycle.

So yeah, I don’t listen to the radio show as much as I used to. 

(Of course this was written before Stuart McLean [1948-2017] passed away.  Now that the Vinyl Cafe is gone forever I miss it dearly.  Kudos to Stuart for insisting to the CBC that his show – the station’s most popular – should not be broadcast in reruns after his passing, insisting instead that the prime airtime be freed up for new radio programming. But I tell you, Sunday afternoons have never been the same.  

I’m now very, very pleased that I saw this concert.)

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