Hallelujah, Zombies and the Man with the Octopi Hands

“Zombies. The theme is obviously zombies!”

A man wearing a black Mexican wrestler’s mask, with a gaudy, bejewelled cross emblazoned on his forehead, spat poetry at the crowd, reading off a black iPhone. He spoke tersely, repeating himself in French after each tight verse.

The man behind the mask finished the last barbed line and said, “This last bit is about discovering your real self,” and ripped off the shining cross to reveal yet another Mexican wrestling mask, this one with a gold pattern around the eyes.

He never did reveal himself, although thanks to Tara McCarthy, our informal host, his name is Stéphan Ruest.

Brave New Words, at Baked Café, is a loose gathering of artists, writers and musicians and is mostly spoken-word performances. Founded by Lauren Tuck, a fine vocalist in her own right, it has continued to gather crowds every third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m.

There is never a set playlist, except for the musical acts, and everyone is welcome to sign on to bare their artistic endeavours to an eager audience. Today, Tuck, founder and often host, is performing her own musical act – the first time she has ever performed in concert.

Armed with only a microphone and a stand with sheet music that the treacherous wind kept blowing off, Tuck looked confident and cool in a purple, smocked top and indigo jeans.

Her songs started out a bit shaky, over the roar of the blender from the café and the mind-blowing screech of feedback off the mic. The scent of freshly roasted Bean North coffee wafted through the audience.

Tuck had a strong voice and, with some songs, a lot of emotion. A standout was her cover of Hallelujah, which reminded me of the late, great Jeff Buckley.

Right in the middle of the heart-wrenching song, a gust of wind blew all of the sheet music from her stand, momentarily interrupting the spell she held over us. Her musicians, Nicholas Mah, on guitar, and Barbara Chamberlin on keyboard, held it together and they finished strong and passionate.

Tuck wrapped up to a great applause and, during her final jazzier number, I noticed local artist Louise Hardy toe-tapping away.

Then a local poet, Phil Thompson, took the stage and I found his poems rather melancholy, a depart from the boisterous mood. He warned us, “I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, as a nine-year-old, and it’s hard to escape that kind of thing.”

A short story about jumping the trains, by a young French Canadian, was interesting, but felt long. The night picked up with Stéphan’s “Zombie” poetry and took a rollicking turn with Ivan’s political poetry lambasting “Black Sites” like Guantanamo Bay, calling to “the Man with the Octopi Hands”.

Stéphan Ruest, this time wearing a straw cowboy hat and no Mexican wrestler mask, leapt from the audience and started shouting copyright jargon and artificial food flavourings at Ivan, “Amyl acetate! Anethol! Anisyl formate!”

I almost jumped out of my seat when he surprised us like that.

That’s the beauty of Brave New Words: it’s a performance free-for-all that’s open to everyone and never fails to excite.

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