Concert Review: Patrick Watson, May 2, Trinity St. Paul’s United Church


The opener played tunes on what looked like a big wooden Gameboy. The lighting cast huge, eerie shadows on the wall behind the band, shadows broken only by the lights strung on three dead-looking potted trees. The first song featured a hand-cranked wind machine and a wailing lament in his trademark dreamy high voice. He played what looked like a raggedy miniature piano for one song that he admitted the band fished out of the garbage. He topped it off by walking into the crowd with a strange speaker contraption strapped to his back made of megaphones. And it all took place in a church.

Yes, it’s just another day in the world of Patrick Watson. We’re all just lucky he gives us a glimpse of that world every now and then.

Watson’s press bio calls him a “musical mad scientist,” as apt a description as there is of what he does. On stage last Saturday he looked the part as he scurried about the stage from the front stage microphone to his piano to the wind machine and everywhere else, his mad musical creations whirling about the shadowy church. You’d almost expect him to shout “IT’S ALIVE” to the crowd, if he weren’t so busy singing. With his very talented bandmates Mishka Stein, Simon Angell and Robbie Kuster aiding in the creation, Watson put on a stunning show of songs from his terrific new album Wooden Arms.

But first up was Toronto singer-songwriter Laura Barrett, an interesting little act most notable for Barrett’s use of a kalimba, which, according to Wikipedia, is also known as an African thumb piano. Barrett sang and played both alone and alongside her band, three guys who played violin, xylophone, banjo, and glockenspiel. Barrett’s act was a curiousity as much as anything else; she was good, but once the novelty of her kalimba playing wore off a large part of the crowd seemed to lose interest. It didn’t help that the echoey confines of the church made it hard to make out Barrett’s quiet voice, nor did it help that a portion of the crowd wandered the aisles trying to find a pew and the best sightline in the general admission seating and made the old church floor creak rather loudly. Barrett’s worth a listen, and according to her MySpace page she’s playing a show in Toronto this weekend and then has a few tour dates in Europe late in the month. I’d consider seeing her again in a smaller space, but she had a bit of a tough time keeping the crowd’s interest on this night.

Patrick Watson, as befitting the surroundings, was nothing short of divine. Their second album, Close to Paradise, won the Polaris Music Prize after it’s release in 2006, and the new one, Wooden Arms, released just a few days before the show, sounds even better. It’s impossible to describe the music without attempting to characterize Watson’s voice; it’s sort of an impossibly heavenly falsetto, a tone that’s so high it seems unbelievable it can be so lush and emotional.

Kuster had an extensive drum set, played an array of pots and pans during a tune and conducted a makeshift string orchestra of four on a few songs. Stein’s bass was solid and Angell’s guitar and slide guitar work really shone on the handful of tracks Watson wasn’t at the piano. The star of the night, however, was Watson. In addition to his dreamy singing and piano playing, he charmed the crowd with his between song banter. He claimed to have written one song for Dolly Parton to sing, and the letter he wrote to her about it began “Dear Dolly, you are like home cooking, I want to feel your potatoes.” She apparently never wrote back.

Rather than a more traditional set list mixing tracks from the new album with older songs, Patrick Watson went through all the tracks on the new album during their main set. For the encore, Watson strapped a homemade speaker setup made of megaphones as he and the band wandered into the crowd. It was hard to see what was going on from the balcony where we were sitting, until he and the band emerged from a door across the way from us, where they set up to play a megaphone-distorted rendition of “The Storm,” with Angell’s guitar hooked into the speaker contraption and Kuster playing the saw. They then rushed back to the stage for “Luscious Life.”

The same problems that made Barrett’s voice hard to hear made Watson’s banter tough to make out from where we were sitting, and much as I like Wooden Arms (especially the song “Man Like You”) it would’ve been great to hear some more off of Close to Paradise besides “The Storm” and “Luscious Life.” Also, church pews get uncomfortable after sitting in them for a short time.

Still, Patrick Watson puts on a brilliant show, one that will be hard to forget. He’s on tour in North America through the middle of May, then heads to Europe for a few shows in late May and early June. See his website for tour dates. See him if you can.


Posted on by Brian in Concerts