When I saw Bob Wiseman at The Pit in the summer of ’95 I joined the small enrapt crowd sitting on the grungy floor of the basement dive bar and swooned to every soft, poignant song the acidic balladeer threw our way. Unfortunately my two drunk friends stood by the bar yakking loudly all night completely oblivious to Bob’s repeated requests that they shut up and watch the show.
“If anyone knows a place in Ottawa where people will respect the right of others to quietly enjoy a concert please let me know,” he queried in a barely-veiled attempt to shame the loudies at the back.
A few weeks later I decided to take him up on it. I wrote Bob a letter (yes, a letter – this was pre-internet) and suggested he could play in my living room the next time he was touring through Ottawa. I figured I could squeeze twenty-five or thirty people in there and promised I would stack the crowd with respectful, attentive music-lovers. This was before house concerts started as a thing so I felt kind of silly even suggesting it, but in a bout of youthful exuberance I found an address on the back of his debut CD and dropped the letter in the box.
Imagine my surprise when I picked up the phone a month later and found my newest musical hero on the line.
Bob said he thought it was a great idea and asked me if we had a grand piano in the living room. “For this tour I’m only playing venues that have an acoustic grand piano,” he said (such a Bob thing to say, as I would eventually come to find out).
Clearly he misunderstood; I was a poor student sharing a house with two or three others. Most of our furniture had been gifted to us or found on the sidewalk; our living room definitely did not have a grand piano in it (or anything grand, really). But I had an idea.
“I’m teaching a course in the music department at Carleton University,” I told him. “The main classroom up there has a couple of grand pianos in it, I’m sure they would let me put on a show in there.”
He said he thought that was cool, suggested a ticket price and a small guarantee for him to make the trip and we left it at that. The music department was indeed fine with me hosting a ticketed show in Studio A and just like that I was promoting my first concert, scheduled for January 6th, 1996.
Well I suppose that’s not really true, I had a hand in promoting lots of shows featuring bands I was actually in over the years, but this was the first time I was acting strictly as a concert promoter. To ease the pressure the first thing I did was hire myself to open the show. That was easy. Then I set a date when Bob Wiseman and the room were both available, printed tickets and posters using only the most cutting-edge computer graphics available at the time, and sat around until the day of the show worrying that I was going to lose my shirt (okay, $200) – which is every concert promoters biggest job (worrying, that is).
I remember setting up the room for the show. I was still worried about money and ticket sales – I think we needed twenty-eight people through the door to break even. A tv crew had arrived and were interviewing Bob and I remember thinking how cool it was that I had actually set up a concert.
My very good friend Doug and I opened the show. It was our first time playing a gig together, and though we have since played a hundred or more shows together this was the only time we played under the terrible name Velcro Cloud (I was such an agreeable person back then) and the only time we played any of the all-original material we had written for the gig.
We only played a half-dozen songs, maybe there was a blues standard in there somewhere, but I do recall two of the songs so well I bet I could almost play them today, more than two decades later. One was a fantastic thematic maelstrom written by Doug called The Secret Service Director Who Isn’t James Bond Blues where I harmonized Doug’s endless eighth-note scalar melody sandwiched between his very spy-like opening and closing theme. It was such a great tune.
The other was a song I had written called Crazy Strawberry. I remember that for two reasons. First, it was the first time I ever succeeded in harmonizing vocally with anybody. Doug and I sang the whole song in harmony and it sounded super. I couldn’t believe it, singing with Doug made something I had never been able to do seem easy.
Second, I had written the song about a friend of mine who (in my opinion) was going off the deep end with drugs and alcohol, and wouldn’t you know it, he was there in the audience. I don’t think he had any idea the song was about him though. Maybe he was all messed up, I don’t know.
But then Bob Wiseman came on and floored me. He started by playing a prepared piano piece whereupon he had prearranged the piano by wedging dimes in between the strings and placing a small crash cymbal on the low strings weighted down with a cinder block. Bob’s flailing fingers made the Bösendorfer sound like a piano and a drum machine at the same time, his left hand just pounding out percussive bass lines under that cymbal.
At one point he scraped something up and down the strings inside the big instrument, making the most beautiful godawful sound. He got a good laugh when he revealed it was his pyramid-shaped Juno Award from the Blue Rodeo days that he was scraping along the strings. The guy was actually making music with his Juno Award. That’s cool.
I also remember a piece called Breaking Philip’s Glass where Bob’s repeated right-hand melodic figures eventually produced an enharmonic vibration that made the room itself sing along with Bob’s piano. That’s also pretty cool.
I sure am glad he insisted on having a grand piano in the room.
Of course Bob played a bunch of his neo-protest songs on the guitar as well, music that I know word-for-word today but material that was still new and mind-bendingly enthralling to me at the time. I was thrilled that I had helped to facilitate such an amazing evening of music and I was also pretty happy to see that in the end about thirty-five people paid for the privilege.
And you know what? When I gave Bob the money we had agreed on he asked me if I had lost any money. I think I had pretty much broken even and told him no, I didn’t lose any money. He asked me if I was sure and then he pressed $40 back into my hand. A final cool move of the day by mister nice guy Bob Wiseman. Downright classy.
I couldn’t believe that with very little effort and a lot of worry I managed to see a great show I had been dying to see and made $40 besides, a very helpful sum at the time. It must have been an addictive feeling; I went on to promote concerts in Ottawa for the next couple of years, always to great success.
I can’t imagine why I stopped. It must have been all the worrying.