On January 29th, 2008 I walked down to Sparks Street – the hopelessly underachieving pedestrian mall in Ottawa’s most desirable downtown area – where the CBC had set up shop after moving out of their seemingly endless tenancy in the Chateau Laurier hotel. I had a free ticket for a taping of Fuse, a now-defunct Saturday afternoon radio show that generally focussed on Ottawa musical happenings, and I was excited.
The taping was Bob Wiseman with an opening set from Prince Edward Island’s Catherine MacLennan. The studio was small, there were maybe forty of us squeezed into folding chairs that had been unfolded in a wood-panelled room. There was a small stage set up holding an even smaller grand piano and a couple of guitars on stands, and right on time host Amanda Putz introduced herself and the evening’s program and we and the radio audience at large settled in for an hour of edited gold.
Being such a huge Bob Wiseman fan the only image I can pull up from MacLennan’s opening set was Bob sitting in with her as they played his song Taylor Field. A poignant, plaintive lament over the death of Bob’s childhood friend, the empathy of Catherine MacLennan’s homey accompaniment elevated the tragic nostalgia to a thing of beauty.
Dressed for radio in plaid pants with yellow suspenders and a bright red shirt, Bob mugged for the studio audience and played to the metaphoric back of the room, all the way from St. John’s to Victoria. His piano work is always shocking, so stellar and abrasive from the first pounding of the keys; his one song on the piano was certainly enough to convince any and all listeners that Bob Wiseman is a powerfully talented musician. Whetting your palette with such virtuosity makes you want to really listen when Bob picks up the acoustic guitar.
And we did really listen. By that time Wiseman had started making videos for his songs and playing them on a screen behind him in real time during his concerts. As this show was mainly for the benefit of the radio listeners there were no screens and no videos. As great as his movies are, it was a rare treat to listen to Bob’s powerful lyrical commentary with nothing to see but the singer himself, eyes closed and thoroughly engaged.
Too soon the show was over. The crowd trickled out; I lingered for a quick hello to Bob while CBC interns started folding up chairs around me. Back out on the bricked avenue the night was still young but Sparks Street being what it isn’t there wasn’t a single thing in sight to prevent me from heading straight home, so I did.