All words: Kerri Pinchuk — All Photos: Kara Capelli
“Leave a light on in the wild, cause I’m coming in, a little blind,” Patrick Watson whisper-sings from behind a piano, out of the darkness of the stage. Fitting lyrics to open the set at the 9:30 Club, as I realize I have little idea what to expect from the chamber pop band. “Light House” is a pretty, delicate melody that might come from an old music box or the saddest part of your favorite foreign film, but it’s not exactly a pump-up jam. Reading my mind, the rest of the band joins in and picks up the tempo a bit. It’s by far the most serene scene I’ve witnessed at the venue: no one is smiling, and I swear a guy nearby actually shushes someone for speaking. Really. But I’m here with an open mind, remember?
The second song, “Black Wind,” proves to be way more upbeat, introduced by a sweet xylophone-violin duet, and the lights come up. Despite the decently sized crowd, the show feels incredibly intimate. Two cone-shaped screens loop weird images, like vintage video footage of a marching band and abstract patterns that look like orange clouds. Right away the audience seems captive enough: the dance move of choice is undoubtedly the sway, with a single-knee-bounce modification for those who are Really Into It. There’s an occasional head bob from the shusher, and several people are poised, arms up and head tilted back, in iPhone recording mode. The couple in front of me stands motionless, holding hands. How romantic.
After a few songs Watson leaves the piano and heads to the center of the stage, announcing that starting NOW the show will begin to get good. He giggles, and naturally the female contingency swoons. But within seconds the band launches into “Step Out,” and soon that cutesy Canadian chuckle is replaced by screaming falsetto, frantic guitar riffs and headache-inducing lights. The crowd’s bathed in red light (exposed! mid-sway!). I look at my watch (2.5 hours fast, as usual) and wonder how much longer the show will last. But as quickly as the cacophony began, it subsides, and PW’s already back at the piano easing into a soft, haunting ballad. The entire show, I learn, alternates between these two extremes: super intense, high-energy sprints and slow, peaceful floats through space.
Along the journey, Pat charms the crowd with the charismatic personality required of a shaggy-haired frontman/eponym, telling anecdotes about life on the road (like a guy outside the Grand Canyon who insisted they were aliens) and showering the appreciative audience with praise (“D.C. has such great music fans!”). The 9:30 appearance is the band’s first in North America since returning from a European tour earlier this week. It’s also their first headlining show at the venue, though they opened for Andrew Bird here in May.
“Big Bird in a Small Cage,” Pat’s only solo of the night, is a song he wrote for Dolly Parton. The lyrics are at the same time sad and uplifting (“you put a big bird in a small cage it’ll sing you a song”), in accordance with his sweet yet sad piano.
The show hits a high point when the whole band gathers around the microphone at center stage for “Into Giants.” They’re harmonizing and giggling and toe-tapping like five beautiful people n2mjustchillin round a campfire, taking turns with their instruments so we can hear each element of the orchestra. Tthat violin! Suddenly a tambourine comes out, and things get CRAZY—the entire crowd’s clapping and tapping along. Even the honeymooners in front of me release their death grip on one another and get into it. The power of music, I tell ya. Another fun song ends up being “Adventures in Your Own Backyard,” the lovely title track of the band’s latest album. It’s super mellow, yet rhythmic enough to suck you in.
But before they set us all free into the night, we’re pummeled with an encore, a cringe-worthy mess of instruments fighting for their last chance to be heard. Even some of the band members look uncomfortable with the noise, squinting in the red light as birds migrate across the screens behind their heads. To be honest, I’m miserable. But as much as the first encore disappoints, the second brings waves of redemption, as Watson hops off the stage and stands on a stool in the middle of the crowd. Guitarist Simon Angell joins him. Having obviously read my preview where I pronounced “Man Under the Sea” my top pick, they slide into the dreamy ballad, first acoustic and soon joined by the rest of the band from the stage. Toward the end of the song, Watson, with eyes closed, leads the hypnotized fans in a loud-to-softer repetition of the chorus. It really is a heart-melting, goose-bumpy moment, and it’s clear that this is what the guy lives for.
For the third encore, Watson gives the audience a choice between several songs, and goes with a funny, possibly entirely improvised rendition of “Oops! I Did It Again,” (nowhere to be found on the whiskey-soaked setlist I later scoop). At this, the crowd goes wild. Relatively.
Ever the optimist, I can honestly say that while some/many of its songs may not be for me, the band has an ability to seamlessly transition between these intensely different styles. And that’s impressive. While Watson’s undeniably a gifted musician and entertainer, it’s obvious why he left behind his solo career: the fusion of sounds brought to the stage by these individual musicians is truly mesmerizing.