Photo of the Patrick Watson band by Aaron Lynett, National Post
A Concert Review by Megan McClean
We all knew Fall had arrived, standing outside as we did on a cold, dark evening, rubbing our hands together and awkwardly bobbing up and down to keep warm. Yet it was the best way to start Fall, waiting for Patrick Watson and his band to take to the stage at this year’s Ottawa Folk Fest.
The crowd grew briskly, each person persistently glancing to the dimly lit stage. It was already an alluring set-up as two 3D cylinders covered in white material with little semi-circles snipped-out fluttered in the wind, creating an eerie yet beautiful atmosphere that almost teased our impatience. Smoke began to emanate from the back and was greeted by an enthusiastic cheer from a substantial crowd for an artist playing on one of the smaller stages. Finally, out strolled Patrick and the band, already beaming and ready to dive straight into the music. They got the show on the road with “Lighthouse,” the first track on their most recent album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard. The lights remained muted so your eyes were drawn to the little dancing lights attached to the fingers of each member. Patrick’s fingers fluttered across the piano with grace and ease as his blissful voice effortlessly mesmerized you for the song’s entirety. The little lights became lighthouses, signaling the land as you floated through the sounds of Watson’s remarkable voice and delicate piano, in a sea of magic until the whole band fused and you snapped out of it. The stage lights suddenly illuminated the stage, unveiling the band, who remained figures in the mist, a scene so startling that I found myself gawking in awe of these fantastic musicians.
After five minutes the audience was reminded that Watson is a normal human being. In response to an fan’s comment, he explains his choice of Tshirt (which was accompanied by scruffy ankle-swinging trousers and well-loved shoes.) His shirt read, “Cinema l’Amour,” an exotic and erotic cinema in Montreal, the band’s hometown. “Ah! Busted!” he laughed.
A few songs into their set, the band huddled around a single old-school microphone as if we are all enjoying an intimate sing-song at a campfire, where, as Watson informed us, “Words in the Fire” actually originated. Watson transfixed us with his vocals, while Simon Angell serenaded with his magical guitar fingers ( Angell isa man whose retro hair, bouncing in the breeze, generated several comments from audience members around me.) Mishka Stein, the bassist, accompanied with another acoustic guitar, and Melanie Blair put down her violin and soothed with her fragile vocals. Robbie Kuster, the drummer, set aside his sticks and as mad as it may sound, played a saw (yes, the tool) with a violin bow, producing a spine-tingling, wistful sound. Apparently this cozy number was interrupted by a soundcheck on another stage but I for one was totally oblivious: I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and seemingly my ears couldn’t be drawn away either.
After a few more songs, the band left Watson to himself and he proceeded to describe how this next track came about. Turns out, he wrote “Big Bird in a Small Cage” for Dolly Parton. He introduced an imagined Dolly to the stage, as he had dreamt about doing in the past, before the lights dimmed again and the song’s unmistakable riff kicked in. He enchanted us with his poise and the ease with which he played such a beautiful song. Then, as before, we were abruptly interrupted when he asked us to sing with him. Watson got the crowd belting “You put a big bird in a small cage and he’ll sing you a song” like lunatics, far too high-pitched for us average folk, but nonetheless it was brilliant to interact with the man himself. He was always laughing, flashing his infectious grin and when the band returned to the stage, they continued to be warm and chummy. They all seem to have fun together, as if they are just some friends hanging out with their instruments, even if they sound like God-sent creatures.
About an hour in, the group try to figure out how much time they have left, muttering to one another in their mikes, until Watson jokes to us that they will end up spending five minutes discussing the 15 they have remaining. “Bad Watson,” he grins.
They left us with “Where the Wild Things Are,” an oldie from their 2009 album Wooden Arms. It was stunning. Watson sings as though he has lived a hundred years and the band accompany with such simplicity and balance, you wonder how the sounds are weaved together so perfectly. The song intensified as each instrument joined in, yet Watson’s slightly reverbed voice remained prominent and the xylophone’s tinkle merged alongside, a matchless duo. Then the xlophone stood alone, hauntingly at times, as if you were taking a stroll through the wild. Until you reach Watson’s soothing voice again, still wild but wholly tranquil and reassuring.
This is a band you must see live if you get the chance. Everyone I met who hadn’t heard of him before fell in love with their performance, though this was merely a small festival set. They are able to capture the mood, make every member of the audience feel included as if watching friends in an snug and relaxed living room. There were no annoying dickheads yelling during the quiet parts (the worst) because I’m pretty sure everyone’s jaws dropped from the first track onwards, or at least sported some kind of mouth-drooling during his set.
The band bowed, humbly thanked the audience and then started a relentless chant, “one more song,” which didn’t wave for a solid minute, until Watson came out apologizing and explained that another artist had to play on a neighbouring stage.
“Thank you so much for being so sweet,” he expressed and waved. The crowd dispersed with smiles as big as his on their faces.