The Canadian singer-songwriter reinterprets his catalogue with orchestral backing, securing a triumph for the sensitivity and sensuality found within his songs
We last heard from Patrick Watson back in 2019 when he released his sixth album Wave, which he soon backed up with a concert at the Barbican in early 2020, just before the pandemic temporarily put an end to live shows. His return to the same venue two years and one bout of covid later saw him revisit much of that album but with one notable difference, namely the presence on stage of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jules Buckley.
Watson spends most of the show sitting at a piano, located at the front of the stage next to band members Mikhail Stein on bass and Andrew Barr on drums. Given that strings have been a regular feature in Watson’s music over the years, giving it the full orchestral treatment seems a logical move and the results are impressive. The well-aligned set-up mostly involves Watson introducing the songs with his softly sculpted vocals, with the orchestra then stepping in to expand, extend and embellish as appropriate. Early in the show he comments on how “the world has lost its mind, we should give love to those who need it” while later on Buckley speaks of “never again taking anything for granted”. Such words do bring into focus the luxury of simply being able to sit in a beautiful hall and appreciate expertly created live music while turmoil and terror take place elsewhere.
Opening song The Wave sees him sing “see you on the other side”, almost as if he’s hinting at the sense of spectacle that tonight’s show will deliver, and Big Bird In A Small Cage from his 2009 album Wooden Arms soon follows, showing how he’ll not limit himself to more recent selections from his back catalogue. Beijing, also from that album, sounds both cinematic and full of drama, offering an example of how effectively the orchestra is deployed tonight to add impact, depth and scale to his songs (not to mention replicating “the sound of city” that Watson sings of).
Other highlights include London Contemporary Voices helping progress Adventures In Your Own Backyard from small beginnings to something more imposing and a refined Melody Noir, which sees the orchestra take a back seat and the band gather at the front to play (it’s one of several songs to also feature Dana Gavanski on vocals). It’s astonishingly, intimately, lovely.
Man Like You benefits from more in the way of ornate, luscious orchestral backing. It is followed by Look At You, delivered with tangible tenderness by Watson on piano, with the ensemble behind him operating with more restraint on this occasion. This contrasting pair highlights the issue of to what extent the orchestra should be utilised in these sorts of shows. There are moments tonight that come close to being a little overpowering in terms of volume, the temptation to throw the entire orchestra at songs not always being fully resisted (but ultimately understandable, given the bountiful resources at hand).
As the show goes on we also get some playful quirks. Watson wields a megaphone on a couple of tracks (not that more amplification was necessarily required) and fizzing, deflating balloons are fired from out of the depths of the orchestra on Here Comes The River. The encore has no need for such whimsy. To Build A Home, the track by The Cinematic Orchestra featuring Watson on vocals, remains a special moment, all undimmed poignancy, and the music box-like Lighthouse sees him emotively plead “won’t you show me the light in your own backyard?” as the orchestra swells magically around him. In some ways, Watson may still be a relatively under the radar artist, but tonight was a triumph for the sensitivity and sensuality found within his songs, one that also proved him to be adept at executing big projects in big spaces.
• This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date.