Running late, I hurried right by the church, unconsciously expecting an abandoned monument to spiritual history. Some two thousand Patrick Watson fans were already jammed onto hard pews inside the magnificent Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste on Rachel east, attentive to the classical strains of a 60-piece orchestra. I entered and groped my way up a darkened aisle in search of a seat.
A few minutes later the mood turned respectfully jubilant as the band filed onstage, the singer-composer in jeans and t-shirt, hiding under his signature military cap, followed by five other musicians who play it straight. After that, time flew, a delirious blur, the briefest two hours of my life so far. Patrick Watson in concert with l’Orchestra Cinéma l’Amour and two choirs is the closest to a spiritual experience I expect to get from art.
Lush, playful, dreamy, spikey, full of surprise: his compositions have the density of great poetry. And like poetry, they demand re-listening, which I did in the days that followed, wearing headphones to block out distraction. Four CDs produced by Montreal’s Secret City Records: Just Another Ordinary Day (2003), Close to Paradise (2006), Wooden Arms (2009), and Adventures in Your Own Back Yard (2012). The band Won a Polaris Award in 2007 and two Felix awards as most successful artists outside Quebec.
Without a doubt, the live concert last weekend involving some hundred other artists took Watson’s music to a new level, mining riches that have not been tapped in studio, revealing the man for what he is: a theatrical genius of the highest order. His sense of drama and orchestration is breathtaking.
Slight framed, looking younger than his 34 years, his strength as a performer is intimacy. Hunched over a piano keyboard as if in private reverie, he sings in a high-pitched tenor (described elsewhere as a “gut-wrenching falsetto”), the lyrics pretty well impossible to understand in a large space. But most of the tunes were familiar to the assembled and anyway the show was not about lyrical meaning, rather interpretation, magnification, transcendence.
As a concert-meister, Watson is generous and good-natured. Stepping down from the stage, he headed down the main aisle, drawing a singsong chant out of the multitude, taking us from shout to whisper, at which point he cued the organ player above the crowd, bringing the evening to a startling, glorious climax. These things are loose the way only a virtuoso can appear loose: by mastery offstage and the giddy, playful embrace of real time in front of fans.
Improvisation is a trope with the Patrick Watson band. I’ve seen them before in smaller spaces. They sometimes seem to be falling off the edge, led by a dishevelled, distracted boy who barely pulls it together in time. Yet the music is complex and performance tight; you soon catch on to the act. This is an indie band with philharmonic ambitions whose leader wears his training lightly. Born in California, Watson (father of two) grew up in Hudson, Quebec, attended Lower Canada College, and sang in a church choir at the age of seven. He studied composition, classical piano, arrangement and jazz.
A recent cover story in Voir Quebec quoted him as saying Debussy, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki are among his preferred composers. “My favourite music is from the early 20th Century, up until 1930, 1940. … The end of the romantic period, beginning with Impressionism. After that it gets too conceptual.”
His Wiki entry puts his musical debut in high school, a ska band called Gangster Politics. Guitarist Simon Angell was there too. Since teaming up with percussionist Robbie Kuster and bassist Miska Stein, Watson and Co have been on a wave of success and creation. The idea of incorporating city orchestras originated in Amsterdam two years ago, when they played with the Royal Concertgebouw. Since then the group has played with orchestras in Paris and Quebec City.
Translating musical experience into words is not my thing, but I’ll gladly be bound by a prediction: other Montreal bands may be flying higher, but this one will go far and wide, to say nothing of deep.
All three performances for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste concert (2400 seats) were sold out weeks before they happened. Get on the Patrick Watson mailing list for news of the next one here: www.patrickwatson.org.