Published Sep 01, 2018It's easy, when wrapped up in the tricky language narratives that ensconce French Canada, to place Karkwa and Patrick Watson in separate worlds. When the two Montreal-based acts teamed up for a trio of collaborative performances as Karkwatson 10 years ago, both had established themselves as key entities in Quebecois rock, but their treatment outside their home province proved a fascinating case study on the politics of Quebecois music in English Canada. Watson, who performs in English, had just won the Polaris Music Prize, skyrocketing his exposure in the rest of the country, while Karkwa, who perform in French, were largely unrecognized outside their home province. (No one could have predicted that the band would win their own Polaris two years later, marking the first non-English record to do so.)
But Karkwa and Patrick Watson have always been kindred spirits, guided by a love for meticulous songcraft and musicianship. And though their careers have taken different trajectories in the past decade — Karkwa won the Polaris Music Prize in 2010 before embarking on a hiatus in 2011 that has yet to officially end, a recent reunion show notwithstanding, while Watson has churned out a few more well-received albums — both parties are still connected by an incredible bond, even after all this time.
Linking up into a nine-piece hybrid band including two bassists and three percussionists, the sizable ensemble started off by showcasing their restraint and compositional synergy with a delicate opening medley of Watson's "Close to Paradise" and Karkwa's "Le compteur." Both songs toy with quiet-loud dynamics, and Karkwatson embraced the shared element to navigate a series of seamless transitions between the two, which served to increase the impact of both songs. It was an impressive opening feat.
Following the opening medley, the nine-piece outfit alternated between Watson and Karkwa songs, filling out each with robust arrangements that bolstered the tunes: Karkwa's "Mieux respirer" was given a beautiful rendition featuring singing saw, while Watson's "Beijing" was given plenty of percussive weight and a full, dissonant breakdown.
All nine members are talented multi-instrumentalists, and their constant rotations between instruments showed off their professional poise, underpinned by mutual respect and a clear love for each others' music. A two-song, small-ensemble acoustic interlude proved that no one was hiding behind the numbers as they turned a four-person version of Watson's "Into Giants" into a giant folk sing-along, while Karkwa's "Marie, tu pleures" featured literal foot-stomping percussion. All the laughs and jokes (many courtesy of Karkwa's François Lafontaine, who is a total ham) showcased the camaraderie that made such a collaboration possible in the first place.
Late-set renditions of Karkwa's "Les Chemins de verre" and Watson's "Big Bird in a Small Cage" only served to reinforce the compositional and performative strengths of each and every performer. Navigating every possible angle of folk and rock explored by the two acts throughout their careers, from Watson at his most fragile to Karkwa at their most raucous, Karkwatson was a masterful display of talent and skill. Let's hope we don't have to wait 10 more years for it to happen again — and, given the due respect both acts have now received nationwide, that they take the show outside their home province for a change.