Montreal legend Patrick Watson performs impromptu set in Plateau

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For my money, Montreal is the best city to live in this side of Paris. Especially in the summer. But for all the mass festivals, street theatre and vibrant energy of the city, sometimes we need a reminder of that very specific ‘je ne sais quoi’ which makes Montreal so unique.

For around one-thousand Montrealers on a Tuesday morning in late summer, it came in the form of a live performance on a street corner by Montreal legend Patrick Watson.

The surprise performance was part of a series of impromptu sets at newly installed street pianos across the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough. Watson was helping to christen a pilot project to install public pianos on busy street corners across the borough. The brainchild of the never boring Projet Montreal administration, who control all the seats on the leftist Plateau’s borough council, the pianos will allow citizens to assemble in the streets and create unique and memorable experiences outside of the arena of major festivals.

I only found out about the performance by chance on twitter, and was lucky enough to make my way to the corner of Marie-Anne and St. Denis a few minutes into his set, which was also live-streamed on the web.

I found a tightly packed crowd spilling onto nearby steps and roofs, enchanted by the hauntingly soulful sound of Watson’s voice, accompanied only by the piano.

He played about three or four songs, followed by an encore, and the rapt silence of the street corner was broken at the end of each song by deafening applause.

Watson is a homeboy, who lives in the neighborhood, and said he was a few drinks in at a local watering hole when his companion, city councillor Alex Norris, asked him if he’d play the set.

“We were having a few drinks and he said, hey, want to come play piano in the streets? I was like, ‘yes, sir!'”

Watson goes on, “I love improvised moments, on the spot. When we started this band we did little weird shows in lofts and weird theatres, that’s how I started and I prefer it that way to organized concerts. People are a lot more generous in those moments. People don’t have any expectations. It’s always people’s favourite moment because it’s not a controlled environment and people join in and laugh.”

“People are so hung up on big politics, I think implicating yourself in small politics in your cities is a much smarter way to make a difference in your life. On the small scale, in a city council, you can understand the dialogue and see the choices they make. Your vote matters more, and can have a bigger impact on your society and where you live. I think it’s important that people start thinking about the small scale again. For me, getting involved in small things like this in my city is more important than playing a show for the Prime Minister. This has more value than the big scale.”

He’s asked if he thinks a performance like this will give a spark to children to take up the piano, and music in general, “Oh no, don’t do it! They’re going to stick you in a van for sixteen hours! Don’t go in the van! [laughter] It’s not funny! Music is a strange bug, I don’t think you ever pick music, I think music picks you. I think music should be a part of every kid’s life. It teaches patterns, math, discipline. I think it’s good for children to be involved in music when they’re young, it doesn’t mean you have to be a musician, because that’s a bad idea! But just to play music. You know before recordings there was someone in every family who played music, and they sat around and played music together. I wonder if that was better.”

“Then your grandmother would be playing music, and you’d have to sing, and then you’d get the feeling I get when I play. Maybe I’m hogging it all for myself, and stealing something from people that they should just do themselves.”

Maybe with these pianos we’ll recapture some of that magic? “That’d be awesome! The grandmothers can come out and rock and roll!”

I ask him about his support for the student strike, which he went on CBC radio earlier this year to support. He says it’s tough for him to say he supports it, because he thinks it’s a symptom of a broken system.

“I’m for making education as cheap as possible, within our means. If that means we have to change how our economic structure is built, that should be the dialogue, more than trying to force water out of stones.

The one thing I feel very strongly about, which I think is a total failure, is that we just give away our natural resources. Countries like Sweden and Norway, which have nationalized their resources, have the right idea. I don’t think anyone should own those things. It’s a bad concept, it’s selfish. I mean, there are countries in Africa that take more royalties on resources than we do! It’s embarrassing. If I was going to march in the street, I’d do it over that more than anything, because I think that would fix so many other problems. Marching for the students is like marching for the symptom, and I’d rather be marching for the root cause of our problems. I’d rather go up the pipeline to find the causes, rather than fighting the effects at the bottom of the pipeline.”

Forget The Box: Obviously you’re a big fan of the project of putting pianos in the street, which is being done by Projet Montreal, so do you support Projet?

“I think they’re really courageous people. They get hate calls, I know Alex [city councillor Norris] gets hate calls late on a saturday night, because of parking meters and trying to get rid of cars, but then everyone whines about climate change and the environment. We have a government which is actually doing something for the environment, and everyone whines about parking spaces. But they stood their ground, and I really respect them having the courage to stand their ground and make changes that everyone demands all the time. Then those changes happen, and people go “Oh, why do you make my parking meter more expensive?” Well, so you don’t use your car!

I have a lot of respect for the courage they have to make the changes they’ve been making.”

FTB: Obviously we’re in the midst of a provincial election, so who are you voting for?

I like Quebec Solidaire. For me they’re the most well spoken, and a lot of their ideas appeal to me, like the issue with resources I was mentioning. I’m not a huge fan of separating, just for the sake of separating. I think that separation is a question we reach once we’ve built Quebec into a stronger society, and decide if that’s the right course. I’m not against it either. I just think people use separation as an excuse, they think everything is going to be better if we separate, when those changes they want, we can do now. We don’t have to be sovereign to do them. Until they can prove to me that they can make those changes now, I don’t think we’ll be able to make them if we separate either.”

I grab Luc Ferrandez, the borough mayor of Plateau-Mont-Royal, and the architect of this project, to ask him a few questions about his street pianos.

FTB: It’s a really novel idea, putting pianos on the streets. Can you tell me where the idea came from?

“New York. New York and London have already done it, but they did it on a much more controlled basis, in festivals and things like that. To just put them on the sidewalk like this, I think we’re one of the first. The idea is to make little events all around the borough that make you go out on a daily basis. You don’t need big festivals. You want to go out and meet your neighbors on a daily basis, that’s why we put some ping pong tables in Parc Laurier, and some exercise machines outside in the park, the kind you would normally find in a gym. We have little markets going on all over, we’re even doing karaoke nights in the park. Little events that make you want to go out and interact with your neighbors. Most of these ideas exist somewhere else, we’re just picking them up and implementing them here.”

FTB: How long will the pianos be out here?

“They will stay for a month. We’ll see if it works, if it’s vandalized. If it isn’t vandalized, we’ll bring it back next year for longer. Anywhere where people volunteer to take care of the piano, without too many residents around, we’ll put a piano there. It only costs $350, so why not? How much do you think it was worth for this event this morning? It was worth thousands of dollars. A little moment of peace. I said to Patrick Watson, in the last fifty years there has never been so much love and humanity on this street corner.”

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