Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe: Listen Up

 “We may not be big, but we’re small.”

That is the motto of a fictional record store called The Vinyl Café. It is also the motto of a real radio show and podcast by the same name, and it could very well be the motto of Bellingham. It has a much better ring to it than “The City Of Subdued Excitement,” that’s for sure.

The Vinyl Café is the brainchild of Stuart McLean, a Canadian storyteller, writer, humorist and radio broadcaster. The 64-year old McLean is a man of many talents, and they will all be on display Thursday, Dec. 13 at the Mount Baker Theatre.

The live performance will be part of a 16-date tour for The Vinyl Café’s annual Christmas taping of the show, which is their largest tour and most popular broadcast of the year.

The first Christmas episode of The Vinyl Café aired 15-years ago.

“Our first Christmas show was by complete accident. I wrote a story about one of my characters, named Dave, cooking a turkey for Christmas dinner,” McLean said. “And, for some reason, the story became one of the most memorable moments of the show. It became a part of The Vinyl Café lore, and it seemed to become everyone’s favorite story. From then on, we had to try and make the Christmas show bigger and better with each taping. What started out with a story, became a tradition.”

McLean’s show mixes stories, most of which McLean writes, and music in a way that is both humorous, heart-warming and, sometimes, heart-wrenching, but always ending on a nostalgic, up-beat note. For the most part, the whole show revolves around the fictional husband and wife duo, “Dave and Morley.”

Dave and Morley live in Toronto with their two children Stephanie and Sam and host of pets. Dave owns a small record shop called “The Vinyl Café” in Toronto, and the family has a jukebox in their living room. The family does not appear in every episode of the radio broadcast, but it is by far the most popular segment. The family dynamic plays a large role in the concept of the broadcast, especially when it comes to the Christmas episode.

“It is a tradition for people to come together with their family during the darkest time of the year,” McLean said. “I think it is in our DNA to come together around the holidays, a genetic disposition to surround ourselves with the people we love and celebrate the coming of Christ, or the coming of Spring, or whatever the reason may be.”

Other segments of the show include McLean reading short stories sent to him by fans, as well as live music performances from Canadian musicians; usually in the singer/songwriter realm.

“Some of my favorite moments have been the musical performances on the show,” McLean said. “A goal of everyone who works on the show is to shine a light on young musicians, who are lesser-known and don’t have the whole star-making machine behind them.”

While the music aspect of the show does play a role in the broadcast, McLean said his primary focus is on the stories.

“For me, the writing is the work, and the music is the pleasure. I mean, I enjoy writing, but it is more like the main course,” McLean said. “The music is the dessert. It is the two of them together that makes the whole meal richer, and more satisfying, than it would be with out one of them.”

For the Christmas tour, Vancouver folk musician, and frequent guest of the show, Reid Jamieson, will perform with his backing band, The Vinylettes. Jamieson will perform a medley of Christmas music, some originals, and does a “wicked” version of Elvis, according to McLean.

The Bellingham show will be one of only two shows in the United States, Seattle being the other one. The rest of the shows will span across Canada, where the show usually broadcasts from.

“We decided to conclude our tour in Washington because it is the first place in the States that picked up our broadcast,” McLean said. “Washington State has been always been so generous and kind to us and we have a great loyalty to that area. It is definitely a place that is near and dear to our hearts. The Christmas show is our biggest show of the year, so this is our way of showing our appreciation.”

While the show is usually taped in a studio, the live audience adds an additional component to McLean’s performance, which makes it much more intimate and collaborative.

“The live audience definitely becomes a collaborator,” McLean said. “The show begins with me and my imagination, then me and my editor, and then we start putting it together for a performance. Once we start performing the show live, the audience becomes the editor. In the end, they let us know what is working and what is not, and what we can do to get the show into the best shape. It becomes a dance with the audience, and I love dancing with the audience.”

When it comes to performing a live show, McLean said American audiences are much more demonstrative than Canadian audiences.

“For us in Canada, the States represent the big-time. When we first played in Seattle, I received a standing ovation when I walked on the stage, before I did anything. That had never happened to me before,” he said. “It was like they were saying ‘we recognize you aren’t from here, but you are welcome in our house.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The Vinyl Café airs locally on KUOW 94.9 fm at noon every Sunday. Tickets for the show can be purchased by phone at (360) 734-6080, online at mountbakertheatre.com, or in person at the Mount Baker Theatre box office.