Mader, Gilpin, Weslowski, Renz, Miskin -- The Minimalist Jug Band and Friends

Mader. Credit:Foxtongue / Foter / <
"Spoken Word has come a long way in 25 years." This is always spoken proudly, like progress, like moving towards a goal, and away from smallness. Our little finger-snapping, beatboxing, round-robining tradition has become an Olympic sport. In our fervour and our spirit, we have taken a tradition of uptown camaraderie, and started our very own tiny revolution. We've created entire communities, we've trumpeted woefully unsung conversations about class, we've created a ritual that heals wounds by naming them, and we've given youth a new kind of excellence to strive for. Our national tournaments are the highlight of the year for thousands. One of our own was seen atop a plinth at the Olympic opening ceremonies, honoured with as much cheer as Terry Fox's mother lighting the flame. We are by every definition of the term a movement.
But three blocks from every revue theatre is a tiny coffee house with two raised tables that, when shifted to the left, become a stage; people will come for the open-secret cheesecake and stay for the open mic. Underneath Vancouver's "WISE Hall" is a room that smells like history and human, where the esoterically famous and the unsung beloved play darts and scribble lyrics. Every great singer has that one enigmatic song about a place, with little descriptive lines like, "Down the road on the right-hand side", "every other Monday night", and "It was there that our stories were told"; lines that make 100 or so people smile for an entirely different reason than everyone else. It's because they each started somewhere; somewhere that will always be dear to them, somewhere that's still beating its little drum faithfully, giving a home for souls troubled and glad alike... every other Monday night.
In little places like this you'll hear sentiments you may never hear on brighter stages. I want to tell you about five such people that could be seen at Vancouver's Café Montmartre one Wednesday night: Al Mader, Chris Gilpin, RC Weslowski, Enrico Renz, and Neal Miskin. The gentlemen who made up this modest show made up one celebration of Vancouver's unique identity.
As the night began, Mader came onto stage wielding his famous washtub bass, a string instrument literally made of an old scum bucket, a single rope-string, and a person-sized stick. The shaft of this instrument has been everything from a crooked old branch to a hockey stick. One pulls the stick more or less to raise or lower the pitch of the bass's single humming note. The object can only be described as romantic: it is loving in its nostalgia and proud in its humility. It seems when he's particularly enjoying a show, he'll shatter the instrument into pieces. We've all seen Ozzy Osborne destroy a guitar, but only Al Mader destroys one piece of an instrument with another piece of the same instrument.
Mader calls himself the Minimalist Jug Band, especially when he's on a stage without rules. The thing about Mader is that he'll always gladly surprise you, especially if you decide you have him figured out. He is part of an older tradition of performance poetry, one that lived in a closer community than some of us know today. After his quirky beginning, filled with scathing self-deprecations in lovable fashion, he then surprised and touched us by honouring one of the community's fallen, T-Paul Ste. Marie, with an elegy to his memory and his inspiration.
Many may dismiss his approach and tools as peculiar; though those who actively listen hear very insightful and heart-felt messages. As a wink-and-a-nudge, his tone often begins in the opposite direction he ends up going. He'll always give homage with the ridiculous, and then deadpan with the best of them for a truly absurd stream of consciousness. His poem “Dead Man’s Pants” about a Thrift Store find has become a beloved song in Vancouver.
Gilpin followed once Mader's instrument had been fully euthanized. Gilpin explicitly celebrates being his own person, in that he advocates and anthems being unique, especially in unpopular ways. After describing growing up as a proud math wizard, he turned his mirror outward, and suddenly explained to Vancouver what it could be; what it was, and what it almost is: "Vancouver was advertised as the city of destiny; a last chance for new beginnings at the western terminus; a grand gesture in the quest that our past will no longer determine us... So buzz into every crevice in this city; demand shabbiness; and, for all our sakes, stay horny."
His critical ode to Arbutus trees seems a brilliant identity image of Canada, perhaps Vancouver itself. When I listen to this descriptor, I can't help but raise my chin as though feeling sunlight I think is meant for me. "You have refused the obvious journey, swirling away from the sun in rebellious digressions... You are wildly out of touch with your surroundings; haven't you noticed? This is a forest of dim and de-saturated browns and greens; it is no home for you and your auburn bark; your blood-red berries; your emerald leaves."
We all hear ourselves in this image of a crooked and unwieldy life-form that refuses to be neat and orderly; and, when he describes its impracticality and its indecency, and implores it not to "change a damn thing", one feels reaffirmed for another day. I honestly don't know whether there is something more specific to which Gilpin refers in "Arbutus", but I might go so far as to speculate this is how the man prefers it; for this celebration of the unapologetically unique, when left unassigned to a specific target, instead brings a smile to everyone who hears it. That is Gilpin's gift: to show us that to be unique is the exact opposite of being alone.
As Weslowski approached the stage, he smiled warmly and the audience laughed as if in a shared joke. He's like that: people will suddenly join together in a temporary little communion when he's present, I've never seen anything quite like it. I've never before seen such joy embedded within contempt (that for mundaneness that mires about our lives when one loses one’s innate spirit). "Contempt" is both an extremely apt and a wholly inappropriate word for RC's invitations into his world, for everything he says has an undertone of complete beneficence. His very presence is one of kindness and hope. There are times when he can make people laugh and rethink themselves just by dropping random facts and basic similes: "I arrived like Joan of Arc: unwanted and Catholic".
Weslowski shows me that the pursuit of being wanted and cherished is the paradoxical twin of the need to be different; but this is only paradox to the unawakened. His voice becomes a calling to all who have ever felt divinely mad. "Let us come together now, fragile; weak, and holy; naked in the madness, accepted for who we are... we, the deep blue dream; we, the golden honey-chant; we, the broken, the betrayed, the fallen, and absolved." The moments Weslowski describes as most having inspired, awakened, changed, and renewed him refer to times when he's alone with the world, being simply alive. He meets the world and lets it fill him again. Only Weslowski would conceive of being so happy at discovering an alien spacecraft in the sky that the need to masturbate overtook him. He worships the idea of being overwhelmed by the joy of a beautiful truth. It's a complex perfect object of worship, more worthy than any I've ever known.
This is when Renz approached our little stage, with a beautiful but conspicuously loved guitar about his shoulders. He smiled and told us about himself, and then he played a single note. And then he played another single note. And then it was a chord, and the audience was sent away. Everything a poet accomplishes in their polemics and their verbal celebrations of life is accomplished just as effectively and beautifully by the very sound of Renz’s voice. While indeed he sings remarkable ballads of love and living, his very presence is an experience in freedom. By the time he finds words for the music, the audience is already enchanted and on a journey.
There are musical trills and conventions in our culture which have been ingrained from at least a century. The form of each phrase is a clue to an audience about what is being felt and expressed. (This is how movie music works.) We hardly notice this is happening anymore. Renz plays those heartstrings beneficently, speaking to us beneath our skin.
Miskin did much the same thing, finishing the late night off with ballads that spoke to us all. Miskin is always our pleasant surprise, the man in the corner who takes care of things, and who will suddenly come out and reveal talent and soul we can only breathe in and experience. When Miskin plays, he is the room. There is no other way to explain it. He is the room that we inhabit, and it’s a good feeling.
Each of these men have tasted the air of grander venues. However, they always seem to return here, the roots from which their nourishment flows: small rooms where smiling faces pass the hat, the contents of which is much of the artists’ revenue. This intimacy is precious to those who love such nights as these. There’s a trust between strangers in a small stage café. This is real; this is human; this is home. Tip your waiter. Have the cheesecake. Pass the hat.

I won't say that these individuals represent Vancouver's voice. There's no such thing, no matter how much diversity and how many approaches we celebrate in a single night. We are a mosaic. But I will say that this night of cheesecake, laughter, poetry, music, and the most ad hoc UFO hoax I've ever seen... was a celebration of Vancouver's principle of diversity. Five voices can never be enough to complete a community's story; but they can start it.