Patrick Watson & the Wooden Arms: Music for McLuhan & the Environment


 Patrick Watson & the Wooden Arms

Published On Mon Nov 07 2011   –   Greg Quill, Entertainment Columnist

A symbolic confluence of art, science and philosophy, the Dew Line Concert at Koerner Hall Thursday night — featuring Polaris prize-winning Montreal band Patrick Watson & the Wooden Arms and indie songwriter/guitarist Amy Millan of Stars — marks the intersection of several of major environmental and media-related initiatives that have an unmistakable Marshall McLuhan-esque ring.

One of the city’s year-long myriad McLuhan100 presentations that mark the centenary of the celebrated Toronto media theorist and communications guru, the concert, subtitled Culture Is Climate, closes the Dew Line Festival that kicked off Nov. 5.

The mandate of the Dew Line Festival — for event details and ticket information, go to — is to probe the future of digital media and its impact on our culture and the way we live through art, music, poetry, film and discourse, says McLuhan100 project manager Carolyn Taylor.

“It’s designed to reflect Marshall McLuhan’s faith in art and artists as harbingers of significant cultural shifts, well before they occur,” Taylor told the Star.

In his groundbreaking work, Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

That belief is also part of the raison d’être of the Cape Farewell Foundation, which is co-producing the Dew Line Concert to signal the inauguration of its North American arm, of which Taylor is executive director and former Toronto mayor David Miller is chairman.

“There were no specific artistic criteria involved in putting the concert together, other than that we wanted musicians who would appeal to a young demographic,” Taylor said.

“We would have liked to present Arcade Fire, but after such a phenomenal string of successes this year, we knew we couldn’t afford them.”

It was broadcaster/consultant Laurie Brown, host of CBC Radio 2’s The Signal, who first suggested Watson and his band, whose evocative and atmospheric music has pushed them to the brink of international stardom.

“The more we looked for an appropriate headliner, the more often his name popped up,” Taylor said.

Founded in 2001 by British photographer and environmental activist David Buckland, the Cape Farewell project takes leading visual artists, writers, musicians, economists, scientists, filmmakers, architects, doctors, lawmakers, philosophers and educators from all nations on expeditions to various remote climate-change “hot” zones — the High Arctic, Greenland, the outer island of Scotland, the Andes — in the hope of inspiring works of art that will engage audiences with deeply experienced impressions of the social and environmental issues related to climate change.

Among those who have taken part in Cape Farewell expeditions are novelists Ian McEwan, Yann Martel and Vikram Seth, musicians KT Tunstall, Leslie Feist, Robyn Hitchcock and Martha Wainwright, performance artist Laurie Anderson, composer Jonathan Dove, playwright Mikhail Durnenkov, movie directors Peter Gilbert and David Hinton, and beatbox artist Schlomo.

But not Patrick Watson — not yet.

“I didn’t know a lot about Cape Farewell or the Dew Line Festival, to tell the truth,” the songwriter and singer said in a recent phone interview from the Montreal studio where he and his band mates are mixing their fourth album.

“But it’s something I’d like to be part of, and I’d really love to go on one of those northern expeditions.”

Watson may have to put that dream on hold. Cape Farewell’s objectives in North America are to find cultural responses to climate change in urban environments, with a view to providing artistic fodder for the foundation’s Carbon 14 exhibition, to be staged at the ROM in 2014, Taylor said.

Even so, Watson and the Wooden Arms are a perfect fit for the Dew Line Concert, given that Cape Farewell is less interested in overt political rhetoric and protest songs than artists committed to pure inquiry.

“Politics and music don’t mix . . . that’s not my approach,” said Watson.

“I don’t know much about Marshall McLuhan, but I know he wasn’t about politics. It was the message and the medium that were important to him.

“What I hope to do with music is inspire imagination, not tell people how to think.” Watson added.

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