Sometimes music can be the palliative you need to redirect and refocus your perspective and energies. Patrick Watson and his talented crew of musicians did just that for me on Sunday evening.
Patrick Watson’s name and work has been percolating through my headphones at various moments throughout the year. Based on repeated mentions and features on NPR, we had some frequent interactions wherein I enjoyed myself, but didn’t get engulfed in what I now see is the genius of Adventures in Your Own Backyard, his newest record released earlier this year.* So, this is not a “new” record given our 21st Century society’s fascination with immediacy, but still fairly fresh off the press and I’d venture to say that with few exceptions (NPR listeners and the Patrick Watson faithful) a fairly under-the-radar album. Why is that? Well, I’ve got some thoughts, including the fact that most of the songs aren’t your traditional pop or radio friendly edits, in other words, extended cuts with non-traditional tempo and mood shifts. But, I’ll return to this in a second, let me just get back to why Patrick has been on my mind of late and why it took so long for this record to grow on me (and why I think it will grow on you too).
…after a series of enervating events (not quite rising to the level of the travails faced by the Baudelaire children), I found myself this Sunday pondering a jaunt to go see Patrick Watson perform because of all the praise lavished by Bob Boilen of his live performances during the past year. But, given the rather disappointing experience the previous evening seeing the Alabama Shakes with a noisy, raucous, and disrespectful crowd that included people hooting and hollering only during the moments when Brittany uttered the few curse words in their songs and countless gentlemen checking their dimwitted phones for updates on college football scores, I was on the fence. (Sidenote: the band did a great job in spite of the circumstances.) However, as is often the case, I’d rather regret doing than not, given that life has a way of rewarding risk taking. (Or, as John Lennon said best, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”) What I serendipitously stumbled across was one of the most beautiful live performances of the past couple of years.
Let’s paint the picture for those who weren’t there.
First, Patrick predominantly plays the piano accompanied by a number of musicians who play your typical guitars and percussion but the more atypical violinist in the wings. Second, on stage right there was a gauzy, muslin covered circle, which I surmised was for visual (e.g., lighting) purposes but turned out to be a backdrop for projecting images and colors. The latter was not merely enhancement but really an essential part of the total work of art. Third, the stage was low light (mostly up lighting) with a series of bare bulbs scattered throughout for illumination and a constant stage mist. (Yes, something resembling a SteamPunk haunted house.) Last, the crowd was patient, respectful, rhythmically swaying, minimally status updating or Instragraming, and fully invested. From the opening notes played on Patrick’s piano, the evening was shrouded in the sort of serene and pensive aura often reserved for places of worship. And, the analogy is fitting if for two reasons: (1) the calming and reenergizing perspective it helped induce in my mind and (2) I often equate the feeling produced by great art as transcendental and spiritual, the very things for which devout worshipers seek from their religion and holy places. Peace of mind comes in many shapes and sizes. I’ve found it in the loud blaring guitars and drums of Japandroids to the muted whispers of a Steve Reich symphony. Patrick Watson’s performance ran this gamut in its own way. A great deal of the songs both in his performance and on Adventures in Your Own Backyard are slow building, deeply layered, richly orchestrated and delicate works with a meditative quality. But, at countless moments throughout the evening and within tracks, the tempo will shift entirely and a veritable hootenanny will arise or, at the very least, a groundswell of power and emotion that incite a body to dance and sing along. One such moment occurred during “Into Giants” that begins as a soft melodic ballad that explodes into this euphoric chorus about promise and possibility; the moment at which all the voices on stage joined into the recurring chorus of “started as lovers don’t know where it’s gonna end” sent shivers through the tightly (yet not uncomfortably) packed building (Lincoln Hall in Chicago, perhaps one of the best venues for live music I’ve ever been to). At another instance, a solo Patrick (as the band took a dramatic and practical break) encouraged audience participation with the following instructions: “when you sing these lines bring the emotions you have when a driver cuts you off, you know a little road rage.” The ensuing series of choruses grew with volume and enthusiasm in a psychic purging of our shared frustrations; it was the literal catharsis great art should always offer. I could keep gushing over the evening and the work but I’d rather you listen and experience the brilliance for yourself.
Now, before I do that though, I should give just a smattering of descriptions and comparisons to further entice those still unconvinced (or as I was Sunday evening on the proverbial fence). To begin with, this music and album takes some patience and an open mind, not to say its quirky and experimental, but, rather, its genius lies in its subtly and complexity. Throughout the evening I kept thinking of three artists in particular: the soul-stirring, falsetto of Jeff Buckley (the aural equivalent of Patrick’s vocal performance), the eclectic, rustic, baroque compositions of Andrew Bird, and the lush, atmospheric, expansive work of The Antlers. Of course, it’s not as though Patrick’s music is composed of simply those elements. At times, there are musical ventures into spaghetti-Western, Southwest infused soundscapes or folk-pop ballads, but it all happens in very contained and calculated ways.
Hopefully, at this stage, you are ready to listen to Patrick Watson’s Adventures in Your Own Backward** in its entirety, if so go here.
post-Posting update!!: I almost forgot that NPR also has a live recording of Patrick Watson and band playing at the 930 Club in DC. So you can see and hear what I saw here. Isn’t technology sort of amazing sometimes. (Except when it isn’t and complicates our life.)
(Non-Spotify users go to his website: http://www.adventuresinyourownbackyard.com/.)
*It is distinctly possible that his previous records are of an equally genius quality but I’ve yet to get to visit with them. Soon I’m sure.