Stuart McLean admits that the description of him as Canada’s favourite storyteller may be built on a bit of self-hype but as he pointed out Sunday, he was in good company “in a room full of liars” at the CN Centre.
After all, doesn’t everyone in Prince George say they live in the North – when a quick look at a map of B.C. tells us otherwise?
So he caught us in a little lie – but he found us in good humour.
We had fun, we laughed out loud, mostly at the telling of the hilarious antics of his favourite fictional characters but occasionally at ourselves.
The show was a mix of what we’ve come to expect from the Canadian icon in terms of stories. Even young fans in the audience, when asked by McLean to recall their favourite episodes, knew right away what to say.
Sunday was the first time I’ve heard McLean perform live.
His CBC radio voice is clear and captivating and his stories around fictional but fascinating characters Dave and Morley and their offspring Sam and Stephanie, and assorted friends have captured the love and affection of a generation of Canadians of all ages.
For me, one of the most endearing parts of the show was when McLean asked for the house lights to come up so that “regular folks” in the audience got a chance to shine.
Who’s the youngest person here? McLean asks. Several small hands go up in the audience. Who is the oldest? A woman in her nineties stands up in the back of the arena. They will get prizes from the merchandise table, he says.
In the format of his Vinyl Cafe show, McLean features talented musicians. The interludes provide breaks between stories and on Sunday, where the show was being recorded, we were treated to the guitar stylings and songs of local artist Raghu Lokanathan.
He performed Caledonia while Pharis and Jason Romero of Likely, B.C. gave us three or four songs as well. As a trio, the singer-songwriters finished the show by giving us a guiding guitar rhythm for a crowd singalong.
During the show, McLean read aloud a story by Prince George photographer and philanthropist Vince Ramcharran, who wrote about growing up poor on a sugar cane plantation in British Guyana, South America. The story recounts how at Christmas, he would get to share slices of an imported B.C. golden apple with his family and how he later emigrated to Vancouver and in the market saw the same apples – and finally knew where they’d come from.
That is the the magic of McLean.
He makes the audience feel at home and he reminds them of their roots. He engages them and makes them feel they matter to him.
In McLean’s opening monologue (where he says his age has two 6s), it is clear he (or his researchers) has done the homework and found out what’s unique about Prince George.
He knew that it was our 100th anniversary and he congratulated us on the milestone – but he didn’t mince words when tracing our city’s early history and commenting on the shameful conduct with First Nations Lheidli T’enneh. He stumbled over the pronunciation, as most of us do when we first try to say it.
In pointing out the good, the bad and the ugly, he showed, once again, why fans regard him as a beloved storyteller. He tells it like it is, or in the case of his fictional family, he tells it as it could be at its most hilarious.
Before Sunday, I had only heard McLean on CBC radio as the voice my mother loved to listen to as she went about her multi-tasking life – baking shortbread cookies, ironing my father’s shirts or sewing buttons on my sister’s cardigans.
So when he appeared live on stage with his wild hand-waves in the air, arm flapping, leg lifting – and all the other exaggerated body movements that accompany his tall tales, I literally saw another side to him.
He was no longer just a voice across the airwaves or well-written words on the pages of one of his books. He was real and three-dimensional. No one does it better when it comes to slice-of-life story telling than Stuart McLean – on the radio or in person.
Our enthusiastic applause was, yes, for recording purposes – but it was for real.
For what it’s worth, I think Mr. McLean should keep his handle as Canada’s favourite story teller – so long as we in Prince George get to keep our image of living in the rugged North.