Alchemical brew of words, music & skill

Performance poets Barbara Adler and Brendan McLeod engage Kingston audience with insight, humour

Brendan McLeod, left, and Barbara Adler, right, were members of the Vancouver Slam Team.
Brendan McLeod, left, and Barbara Adler, right, were members of the Vancouver Slam Team.

Literature Review: Barbara Adler and Brendan McLeod @ The Sleepless Goat, Oct. 30

In the performances of Barbara Adler and Brendan McLeod, poetry meets music in a dark alley and laughs. The poets and performers brought their comic, yet moving styles to the dimly lit Sleepless Goat
on Monday night as part of their tour through Canada, the U.S. and the UK.

It’s a route they’ve followed many times before as poets and members of their folk-rock spoken word band, The Fugitives. Balancing compelling performance with crafted content, Adler and McLeod have each made their mark in the Canadian and international spoken word scenes one gig, one poetry slam and one festival at a time. The Vancouverites opened with a duet version of Adler’s “Music,” in which they mused and even mewed about musical origins and perfection. This introduction set an insightful and humorous tone. Taking turns at the mic, the two performers fired off their poems with ease and skill. Adler and McLeod evoked the moods of the pieces through gesture, pauses, facial expressions and body language that suited each poet’s voice and created a dynamic, absorbing atmosphere.

Adler’s first solo of the evening was “Buster Keaton was a Surrealist,” an older piece that showcased her command of vocal volume and pitch while presenting shrewd social observations. Despite her technical skills, what really stood out was her ability to manipulate language and cultural references, as she would twist and rearrange the familiar to communicate something new. In this piece, she argued that comedian Keaton influenced Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. She said Keaton used slapstick to illustrate that “comedy had always been a three-legged race with tragedy,” inspiring the
audience to believe we can escape our disastrous circumstances at the last minute.

In “Ontario, 2001,” as McLeod described frantically searching for a lover while travelling on a train
through Toronto, his voice took on a staccato chugging quality, rushingwith the story until it slowed own for his return to home. Often playing guitar, McLeod was observant andconversational as he sang and spoke about a range of topics including love, travel, alcoholism and the plight of magician/stuntman David Blaine. He comfortably injected humour into serious pieces, offering insight like “the foreign and the intimate are divided only by a handshake.” McLeod created complex yet accessible metaphors such as packing disposable toiletries on his hunt for his girlfriend through manholes, bridges, barbers and streets where “the night moved in like [her] shadow.”

The duets where Adler’s high-energy jumping and McLeod’s guitar strumming fed off each other added yet another dimension to the show. During one of McLeod’s songs, they shouted “Humanity is awesome!” and continued on to intricately detail humanity’s scientific, musical and literary accomplishments in cleverly composed, fast-paced arguments. Though combining poetry and music makes intuitive sense, most poetry audiences aren’t used to the presence of instruments, and it’s unusual for concerts to explicitly revel in the spoken word. The Fugitives’ fusion of spoken word, hip-hop, folk and rock has given them the chance to merge and expand these audiences. Both artists are experienced and award-winning poets and were members of the Vancouver Slam Team that competed in Canada and the U.S. with much acclaim and success. Vancouver is known as the home of many of Canada’s top slam poets. Although McLeod and Adler no longer compete in slam events, Adler sometimes hosts slams and sneaks in eight-minute pieces. Slams can be testing grounds to try out material on audiences and, as Adler acknowledged, a way to establish yourself as a performer.

However, she prefers writing outside the time constraint of three minutes per poem.

Adler’s latest CD, FlusterBlush, corresponds with this development—unlike on her debut recording The Littlest Hobo Strikes Again, pieces vary in length. In the second set of the night, she performed FlusterBlush’s “24 Hour Heart,” which uses sophisticated, candid description to explain to a
lover how the narrator had turned into a hotel.

McLeod was selling his CD l’ouvert coeur l’homme partage (or Open Hearted Man Sharing) at the show, which features some of the pieces he performed Monday night. “Shania Twain,” a misleadingly titled portrait of his alcoholic father, is equally captivating in recorded form as in live performance. In January 2007, Adler and McLeod will join The Fugitives as they perform a spoken word play in high schools across the country, while still touring night venues in support of a forthcoming CD.

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