Musical entertainer Al Simmons, who will be performing at Billy Barker Days and ArtsWells this year, is almost indescribable.
The Winnipeg-born performer is like an Inspector Gadget with some music chops, who doesn’t need to rely on Penny or Brain to bail him out of tight spots.
He has graced thousands of stages in his 50-year career, wowing audiences from Alaska to Las Vegas and from Hong Kong to the Bahamas.
His press kit says, “Al has won a Juno Award, he’s a Member of the Order of Manitoba, and the recipient of the Winnipeg Symphony’s Golden Baton for Artistic Achievement. He was a gold medal winner at the 2005 World Championship Zucchini Race, and a restaurant in his hometown named a hot dog after him. He has also recorded three hilarious CDs, written a book and created a DVD movie that includes six of his zany music videos.”
This will be his first time performing at the Billy Barker Days festival in Quesnel, and he’s very excited.
“I’m doing two half-hour show during the day … and they’re going to be totally different,” he says. “When I come back [for my second show] it’ll be like — ‘and now the continuing saga of musical misadventures’ — so it’s going to be fun.”
Simmons says he will be toting around four 50-pound cases filled with props, costumes and wacky musical instruments.
“So that’s 200 pounds, which probably averages out to be about five dollars per laugh. I mean five pounds per laugh,” he says, correcting himself, before slyly adding, “Dollars when you talk about airline excess baggage fee.”
While often labeled as a children’s entertainer, he thinks his performances can be enjoyed by a wide range of audiences.
“It’s funny when people have described me, they’ve said, ‘Oh, this is Al Simmons, he’s a child entertainer,’ which almost seems like I’m a child and I’m an entertainer,” says Simmons. “They’ve mis-worded it, but in a way that’s what it feels like on stage.
“I feel like I’m a child in a lot of ways. I’m just playing with my toys on the stage and everyone’s watching.”
He says the show switches up according to who he is putting it on for.
“If I’m faced with all adults, some of my stuff doesn’t work because adults are not as smart as kids, so I have to dumb it down for them.
“With kids, I can do almost anything and they get it but the adults are a little bit dim … but my favourite audience is families,” he adds. “Where you can have a child sitting on a grandparent’s knee and they’re both laughing at the same thing and then they take that home with them, and they can talk and laugh about it for decades to come.”
To facilitate those laughs, Simmons says he prepares relentlessly.
“I think the best way to get the best ad libs and run a show by the seat of my pants is by rehearsing and practising and planning and planning and getting everything lined up so it’s all planned out and then when something goes wrong or something unusual happens I can go off on a tangent and do the show inside out or from finish to start,” he says. “If I’ve got it all planned out, then I find I’m able to ad lib more. It’s almost like there’s two of me. It’s like left brain/ right brain … but I don’t know which is which.
“There’s one part of me that is the guy that plans it and memorizes the words to songs and the chords to songs and sets up and creates things, and when I get on stage, the other guy takes over and ignores what the first guy plans,” he says before letting out a big chuckle.
“All your plans are for nothing because I’m going to do this!” Simmons continues in a booming devil-may-care voice.
He will be performing some of his greatest hits, including a simple but incredibly clever number where he sings along to an eye chart.
“So the letters in the chart are, G I Y Q, S I 2, S I 2, U R A Q T, S Y I Y Q.”
For readers, try saying the letters a couple times, and they will start to turn into words.
“That’s been a popular one of mine for —it’s hard to believe now — I’ve been performing the first verse of it for close to 45 years now.”
Simmons says he recently wrote a second verse, so hearing that will be a special treat for Cariboo fans.
“The other one that’s popular up there is ‘I Collect Rocks.’ There are lots of rock collectors and prospectors up there, so it seems to hit home.”
Audience members can expect to see various instruments Simmons has created out of rubbish. It is a trademark part of his show, which he plans to pass along some of the secrets of when he visits Wells later this summer.
“I’m teaching a workshop on how to make musical instruments out of junk,” he says. “When people leave, they’re not going to walk away with a working electric guitar or a ukulele that they’ve made.
“Anything that we’ve made is going to be made out of tins cans and strings and pieces of pipe and plastic containers. Rather than throw stuff away, I’m showing how to re-use something and turn it into something useful that you can play for a long time after.”
The workshop will take place on the Friday just before the festival starts (Aug. 2), and the attendees will get a wonderful chance to show off their crafts.
“On Friday night, we’re going to have a parade to the main stage and do a mini-concert with these instruments,” says Simmons. “So everybody taking part will end up on the stage.”
Readers may be asking themselves how on earth someone who has been performing for 50 years can still host workshops, lug around 200 pounds of props and put smiles on the faces of old and young with his zany antics.
Simmons says it’s the people he performs for that give him his gusto.
“They say laughter is the best medicine and for me, just hearing people laughing makes me feel better,” he says. “So normally, at the end of a show, I feel more energized.”
Come give Al Simmons some energy at Billy Barker Days this Friday where he will be performing on the main stage at LeBourdais Park at 11:30 a.m. and at 1 p.m.
You can also go see him at ArtsWells this August long weekend (Aug 2-5).