There is a streak of perversity to my tastes. Not only do I like underdogs, but I enjoy people who do things no one else is doing and that no one else has done, whose art is such that it could not be meaningfully replicated by anyone else, who are so unique that to get a flavour for their work, you really have no choice but to go see them play live.
Al Mader—the Minimalist Jug Band—is one such person. (Sure, he's been covered by the Creaking Planks, but hearing their take on "Dead Man's Pants", delightful as it is—you might even be forgiven for preferring it to the original—in no way prepares you for Mader's rendition.)
Underdog or not, Al Mader ranks way up there by me, among Vancouver singer-songwriters. He's got a sharp, sardonic wit, an observant eye, swims in the same pop-culture sewers I do, working in ironic references to everyone from Billy Joel to Reveen into his songs. And he sure can turn a phrase. He is also a very funny performer: he's basically a slam-poet who self-accompanies on a homemade washtub bass, whose sense of rhythm is tied mostly to the rhythm of his language...which makes him a daunting figure for a more conventional musician to try to accompany, as you may see watching his frequent collaborator Petunia play along with "Raven or a Crow" on Youtube.
Mader's performances are part deranged, testifying street preacher and part dry-witted deadpan put-on artist, but he often occupies both roles simultaneously, being outrageous in a knowing, self-mocking and self-contained way. It would have been something to see him open for Nick Cave, in Toronto some time ago, maybe around the time of Tender Prey. I'd love to discover that Cave was watching Mader from the wings that night, scratching his head and chuckling.
I'm not sure Nick Cave does chuckle, mind you, but if the Minimalist Jug Band can't get him there, no one can.
There's more to it than performance, too. Mader is also shamelessly unself-conscious in his choice of topics; writing, for instance, funny confessionals about his lack of prowess in bed. ("I'm a Lousy Lay", which he's probably tired of playing by now; how many times can a man sing a song like that before it starts to get at him?) There's also a song about a period of homelessness he experienced before his relocation to Vancouver, "Feel Great Today 'Cos I Ate Today". Both those songs are on his first CD, 2003's For Crying Out Loud, which tends to come with handmade, homemade cover art. It's one of three CDs Mader has self-distributed, and the most stark and spartan; there's also 2007's more fulsomely musical Thrift Stories and 2010's Naive Ville. I heartily recommend acquiring all of them.
While there have always been performers in Vancouver with the capacity to clear a room—Tunnel Canary comes to mind—Mader is the only Vancouver songsmith who I've yet seen provoke people to leave because they felt embarrassed by his subject matter. And while he's not actually setting out to provoke that reaction—the vast majority of his audience are downtrodden-but-hip schmoes like me, laughing with him, not at him, and seeing themselves in some of his darker corners—it pleases me greatly that he's said he'd prefer that people flee to having them just sit there politely listening and applauding, while remaining mostly indifferent.
On the occasion of Mader's performance at the Anza Club, opening for Doug Andrew and the Circus in Flames this Friday, I asked Mader—who is sometimes hard to reach by phone, and who is not particularly computer-savvy, to handwrite an artist's statement for the show, giving people a hint of what he might do. He passed it on to me at a used bookstore we both have dealings with, and I now type it out for you, unaltered, insofar as I can read Al's handwriting.
The plan is: the Minimalist Jug Band will open the show at 8:30 for a thirty minute set. Expect a washtub bass, a driftwood sax, and whatever other atonal and , instrument I can conjure up.
The set will include the usual pointlessly depressing dirges, interspersed with dumb novelty tuneless "tunes" (which may also be pointlessly depressing. The set will also include "Don't Have to Go to Fucking Highschool," a song that will appear on Petunia and the Vipers' upcoming record. Some of the vocals for that recording were taped over the phone from Carson Books and Records; luckily it was a relatively quiet night, customer-wise. I promise not to phone in my performance at the Anza Club.
The repertoire will also contain one or two pieces that were originally composed for the "Big Top Sings" nights. Big Top - another great circus/ noir band - have been asking local writers to contribute words to go with their soundtrack-influenced instrumental recordings, and created a multi-media cabaret series which I have participated in.
There will be wild gesticulation and props to make obvious points even more obvious. If I have the energy the set might end with a feeble attempt at wanton destruction - though there is no money-back guarantee in this regard.
Next, Doug Andrew and Circus in Flames will revive your spirits by releasing their poetic masterpieces, which will blister your toes, put a tear in your eye, and a smile from ear to ear, as Doug reminds us that South Van is the true creative heart and soul of this town.
(And for the record, I'm actually not sure if he's signing that or thanking me at the end. When we talk on the phone the phrase "Hi Al, it's Al" is sometimes employed. We have yet to get confused as to which Al we are talking about).
Looking forward to seeing if anyone flees the Anza during his set.