Call Bob Wiseman the “former Blue Rodeo keyboardist,” and he will shrug and smile. Call him a “straight-shooting and outspoken musician,” and he will not disagree. Call him “the Canadian Tom Waits,” as Ron Sexsmith has, and he will say that his voice sounds nothing like Waits’s distinctive gravelly one.
Call him to suggest a meeting to talk about his adventuresome new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, and he’s all “absolutely.” And call him a prince of a guy, he will laugh his squirrelly laugh – because he gets the joke, and because he laughs a lot anyway.
“I’m a music man,” Wiseman said early in our interview last week at Toronto’s Tranzac Club, where he was rehearsing for an album launch concert that took place Thursday. Over a long hour of rambling chat, the likable oddball opined on such things as Prime Minister Stephen Harper (“a dastardly, dysfunctional character”), his former Blue Rodeo bandmates (“I didn’t enjoy those guys”) and his one-man play, Actionable.
Wiseman, 50, is to perform that small play, inspired by his experience with lawsuits and songwriting, at the Pearl Company Winter Theatre Festival in Hamilton this week. The actor-musician’s most famous litigious shenanigan, which briefly earned him international notoriety, involved a purple-reigning superstar and copyright infringement. When Prince abandoned his self-applied royal moniker in the early nineties in favour of an unpronounceable symbol, Wiseman announced, in turn, that he would prefer to be known as Prince. Lawyers for the Let’s Go Crazy singer objected.
In the United States, he’s still known for that prank. In Canada, he’s remembered as the impish jazz-leaning whiz with the Acetone organ on the early records of Blue Rodeo. “The funny thing is,” Wiseman said, with one of the short bursts of laughter that punctuate his speech, “is that neither of those things have anything to do with what my own work is all about.”
Wiseman’s new album is about 40 minutes long, with a blues about former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristride, a stuttering Bo Diddley rocker about political lobbyists, a funky free-speech screed called The Reform Party at Burning Man, and a thoughtful, piano-tune homage to Neil Young. “I like the thrust of people writing about real issues,” he said, naming Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Liz Phair and Warren Zevon as his heroes in that department. “I remember when Bob Dylan came out with Desire in ’76, and the song about Rubin Carter,” he added, getting worked up. “I remember when Rubin Carter got out of jail. This artist, Dylan, just laid it out for everybody.”
Knowing his disdain for this country’s piano-playing Prime Minister, I mentioned that at the national blues award gala held last week in Toronto, Harper’s wife, Laureen, presented a pair of awards. (Her connection to the blues scene comes through the guitarist Jack de Keyzer, who gives lessons to son Ben Harper.) I asked Wiseman if he’d consider offering piano lessons to the Beatles lover at 24 Sussex. “I don’t believe that Stephen Harper is the kind of guy that is open to anyone telling him what he needs to know,” he said.
Later, I asked him about Blue Rodeo, and his decision to leave the group at the height of its success. At the beginning, Wiseman, younger than the other members, dug it. But when the band began to, as he saw it, become more hierarchical and commercially concerned, he grew disenchanted. “They got intoxicated with the idea of what they wanted to be seen as,” he explained. “For me, it just got more and more dysfunctional, and I got out of there.”
He said he has no regrets over leaving a money-making band. In a previous interview, I once asked him why he painted the keys to the infamous Acetone organ from his Rodeo days. He explained that the dried paint made the instrument more challenging to play. Now, speaking about the blues tune on his new album, he says he wanted the sound to be authentic, or “correctly complicated.” Which sums up what Bob Wiseman is all about: looking for challenges and aiming for correctly complicated.