For all the jokes we make at the expense of our neighbors to the north, Canada may have the United States beat in one key export – great indie rock. Some Canadian groups find massive success in the US – Arcade Fire, for example. Others find a smaller but no less rabid following, such as Japandroids, Destroyer, or Besnard Lakes. Still others have found success in Canada but have yet to truly break through here despite prodigious amounts of talent and fantastic live performances.
One such band is Montreal’s Patrick Watson (that’s the name of the band as well as the singer/pianist who founded it). They garnered a Juno New Artist of the Year nomination in 2007 and have been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize in 2007 and 2009. (No, you don’t need to know what those are, only that they’re a much more accurate gauge of talent than the Grammys.) Those successes have yet to translate to fame in the United States, but if Wednesday’s show at the 9:30 Club is any indication, they won’t be a kept a secret much longer.
Patrick Watson the MAN addressing the crowd Wednesday night.Watson’s show was a magnificent amalgamation of vaudeville, performance art, comedy, and elaborate yet perfectly constructed music; the kind of show that Tom Waits would construct if he were still 24 years old. In fact Watson resembles a young Waits in the way he tickles the ivories, jerks his body behind the microphone, sings out of the right corner of his mouth, and seems to be able to make music out of anything. (He’s been known to use a bicycle as an instrument.) His vocals, however, couldn’t be any more different from Waits; Watson’s high-pitched soprano is infinitely more Antony Heagard or Jeff Buckley, but no less capable of holding an audience spellbound, as their 90 minute set proved.
They opened with “Lighthouse,” the leadoff track to their latest record Adventures in Your Own Backyard. The band took the stage wearing small flashlights on their fingers, instantly creating a surreal atmosphere that would continue throughout the evening. Strings of large light bulbs covered all their equipment, two round projection screens showed stock footage of soldiers, airplanes, and sharks at various points during the evening, and the multi-talented musicians on stage switched places and instruments frequently. When Watson wasn’t playing his baby grand piano, he held an effects pedal that augmented his vocals.
All this stagecraft could be construed as pretentious in the hands of other musicians, but Watson and his bandmates are clearly there to entertain themselves as much as the crowd. They frequently joke and burst into laugher between songs. Watson himself is an engaging storyteller and comic presence. Following “The Quiet Crowd,” he asked how many in the audience were present when the band opened for Andrew Bird just two months ago. As many people cheered, Watson quipped, “the next half’s going to be totally different then,” and promised costume changes and dance numbers.
Watson continued to mix hilarious stories with fantastic music. “Into Giants” got the crowd moving and Patrick Watson the BAND, basking in the glow of the 9:30 Clubsinging, as did “Luscious Life” from 2007’s Close to Paradise, which Watson called “a song we wrote while drinking.” The most amusing anecdote, however, was the introduction to “Big Bird in a Small Cage,” which Watson claimed he wrote for Dolly Parton. He spun the tale of his unsuccessful attempt to persuade Parton to record the song then, realizing the show was being recorded for NPR, tried to persuade All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen to cut the whole monologue from broadcast. (NPR will have the show available next week; we’ll see if Watson was convincing enough.) Watching the young bearded Canadian imitate Dolly Parton – then try to deny he had done so - was worth the price of admission by itself, though the performance of the song proved transcendent.
But it wasn’t all laughs. Songs like “Noisy Sunday” were majestic, as Watson’s piano, Melanie Blair’s violin, and Simon Angell’s guitar melded seamlessly into a perfect melody. The evening’s final song, “Man Under the Sea,” saw Watson standing on his piano stool in the middle of the crowd leading a quiet sing-along, before the band once again exploded into a flawless wall of sound that ended the evening on a perfect note.
It began on a high note as well, as Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers provided a stellar warmup set. Though they were in DC just a few months ago, GLS is a fantastic live band and it was wonderful to have another chance to see them in action. Focusing on material from their two most recent albums New Wild Everywhere and Lost Channels, the band alternated slow acoustic songs like “Cornflower Blue” with upbeat numbers such as “Pulling on a Line,” and earned many new fans in the process. Lead singer/guitarist Tony Dekker and violinist/vocalist Miranda Mulholland are a wonderfully talented duo, and it’s only a matter of time before they headline their own show at 9:30.