Rupert Wates of Joe's Cafe

The thing I like most about Fringe festivals is the element of surprise. Sometimes you end up watching a raucous, unpolished performance that probably sounded great at the bar but never gelled as a piece of theatre. Sometimes you get an hour-long monologue about love and politics. And then sometimes – well, sometimes you get a concert.

Rupert Wates is a London-born musician based out the U.S. who seems to have made a project out of collecting stories and recasting them in song. Joe’s Cafe doesn’t have a story of its own — it’s just a place where Wates’ songs can happen, and the audience can tap their feet and hum along if they choose (not too loudly, please). It’s a shame that the Shu-box Theatre at the Mackenzie Gallery doesn’t actually serve coffee and pie, because that would have been a great addition. And hey, free pie.

Wates is accompanied by Saskatoon singer Tara Stadnyk, who does a nice job of capturing the sadness and nostalgia in some of the pieces, with a clarity and strength on the high notes that sound like a good day in Nashville. Every so often the tunes drop below Stadnyk’s range, but those moments are infrequent.

It doesn’t take long to see what Wates is up to with Joe’s Cafe. By telling the stories of Americans over the course of the country’s history, presenting moments of kindness and cruelty, heroism and horror, he’s seeking to capture the demotic spirit of his adopted country. His lyrics are slippery and clever, with unexpected rhymes and details that kept me listening throughout. Sometimes his stuff is a little too earnest and on-the-nose, which results in stories that go for tragedy but fall into bathos (“The Skies of South Dakota” is probably the worst offender of the show), but it’s a pleasure to hear songs that eschew irony and distance for full-on engagement with the subject matter.

Wates and Stadnyk close out the show with two of their strongest tunes, “Days of Mercy” (a Depression-era tale of a mother who walks across America with her children to get home) and “Prayer,” a coda that sums up Joe’s Cafe better than I could.