Of all the audiovisual images that remain in my mind from this summer’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, one stands out: Marin Patenaude, spotlit on the Performance Works stage and singing with magnificent panache as the members of Pugs & Crows waxed uncharacteristically rockish behind her. Now, I already knew that Patenaude is a great singer, having heard her in intimate coffee-shop settings as well as on larger stages, and that Pugs & Crows is a powerful band has been widely recognized; the quintet even won a 2013 Juno for its album Fantastic Pictures. But the synergy between all six performers was startling.
It’s rare, in Vancouver, to come across a vocalist with genuine star power fronting a band full of virtuosos and blessed with such emotionally compelling material, but that’s what Patenaude, Pugs & Crows, and their guitar-playing bandleader Cole Schmidt have achieved with the songs that make up their just-released full-length, Uncle!. At Performance Works, Patenaude seemed borne aloft by the music, and so was the audience.
“That’s so wonderful to hear that you had that experience watching us, because that is the experience I’m having on-stage with them,” Patenaude says, reached at home in the Kootenays. “It’s new territory for me, completely. I usually have a guitar in front of me, so what to do with my hands alone is a whole new world. But I love the music so much ’cause Cole’s just such a wonderful weirdo. He creates such unique sounds, and to be able to sing his music and his journey and his lyrics, and go through that journey with him, is so fun. And then being on-stage… They’re all such cerebral players, but everyone’s always listening to one another.…I have a hard time putting it into words, but it’s fun. It’s really fun. And I’ve never had such a thrill on-stage.”
Uncle!’s title needs some explanation. It is, Schmidt says in a separate telephone interview, a reference to the familiar cry of surrender that accompanies childish games. But in this case, the 33-year-old musician continues, it’s also a nod to the kind of surrender that comes along with becoming fully adult, with seeing your friends, cousins, and bandmates become parents, with taking on a serious job. (Schmidt recently became a programmer with the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society.) And Uncle!, the album, is also a deeply felt examination of the heartache that comes when older friends and family members die. The record is primarily a memorial to Schmidt’s uncle Russ MacKay, who as much as anyone is the reason why he’s a musician today.
His uncle’s legacy, Schmidt says, is “a big question, so I’ll try to dial in the shiny pieces that are still there. He was basically the first person to show me the Beatles, and he taught me how to play barre chords, and he took me to meditation classes when I was a teenager, and sent me postcards from all over the world when he started travelling more. He was the guy who showed up at Christmas and brought the light into the room. He was an exciting person, you know, and yet everything felt a little more calm when he arrived.”
The love is obvious in Schmidt’s voice, and in his music, and in the way that the effusive Patenaude and the cerebral Pugs combine to bring it to life. Sometimes real beauty comes from great pain—and, alas, there’s one more sad thing to mention before coming to a close here. Schmidt began writing Uncle! after his uncle died, and completed it in time to give an advance copy to his programming mentor, Ken Pickering, who passed away in August. When a memorial for the jazz-festival founder was announced for the same day as Uncle!’s album launch, a hard choice had to be made.
“It came up,” Schmidt says. “Like, ‘Well, maybe it’s not the best time to be doing something else. Maybe this is a day for Ken.’ But I would much rather be playing music than not—and this music was definitely made with friends passing in mind, so going ahead seemed appropriate.”
Pickering would approve.
Pugs & Crows hosts an album-release party for Uncle! at the Western Front next Saturday (October 13).