Watkins Family Hour
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/8/2015
published: 25 /
For more than a decade, Sean and Sara Watkins have, under the moniker of the Watkins Family Hour, conducted impromptu jam sessions at The Largo in Los Angeles with special guests. Lisa Torem catches them on tour in Chicago in support of an eponymous new album
When the Watkins Family Hour sailed through the final performance of their three-night stint at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, they gifted their fans with a mix of mood, texture and personality.
At the helm stood guitarist/vocalist Sean Watkins with violinist/vocalist Sara Watkins. With Chris Thile, the siblings performed in progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek before branching out into solo projects. Their current tour evolved from concerts held at Los Angeles club The Largo, where their informal, monthly shows began to draw visiting musicians who were travelling through town.
The lineup included keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), standup bassist Sebastian Steinberg (on “pygmy soprano bass”), singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, drummer Don Heffington and local guests: singer-songwriter Andrew Belle, violinist Liz Carroll and button accordionist John Williams.
The set began with ‘Jefferson’ (from Sara Watkins’s 2009 self-titled debut album), which set the bluegrass barometer to a red-hot high. Watkins is a vivacious vocalist and fiddler, whose voice and presence radiate consistent energy and warmth. When she wants to accentuate a rhythm, she’s not afraid to stomp it out with her boots, pluck it with her bow or spit it out, as she reveals her stellar range. On ‘You’re the one I Love’, she then joined Apple to deliver another brand of biting vocals.
Apple then threw herself into an emotional rendition of the Skeeter Davis tune, ‘Where I Ought to be’, which is about a jilted lover: “I got your wedding invitation / I don’t believe your wedding is where I want to be,” she wailed through clenched teeth as her long, tied-back hair snuck towards her shoulders. Sean Watkins echoed the scorn with skill and Tench didn’t hold back when it came to elaborating on the sing-song melody, particularly when Apple lamented: “Like a god-damn fool I introduced you / I never thought that I would lose you… /
Sara Watkins did a great job presiding and at one point tried to clarify how this magical event came to be: “After 12 or 13 years playing at Largo, we’re doing a bunch of songs off of it” — she was referring to the new ‘Watkins Family Hour’ album. She smiled, gazed into the audience and shrugged. “Guys, we’re just gonna play a bunch of songs…” Then she picked up her fiddle, braced it against her chest and graced it with a feather stroke.
A joyful, soul-searching cover of ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ (a Lindsey Buckingham cover) was another straight-up thrill. The simple, heartfelt lyrics contrasted well with the following song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s menacing ‘Tombstone Blues’ from 1965’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. A fantastic outro finished it off. Then Tench’s blistering keys and Sean Watkin’s fine picking underscored Roger Miller’s ‘Not in Nottingham’.
The young Fiona Apple fans drew a sigh of relief when she sang one of her own classic hits: ‘A Mistake’, which contained a series of her signature dissonant chords. With his wheat-coloured fedora shoved over his face, Tench then noodled at the piano and played a tender original of his own.
Fiona Apple headed back to the mic for ‘Object of My Affection,’ a rhythmic, American songbook classic. Local singer/songwriter, Andrew Belle, humbly introduced himself and thanked the group for this opportunity to share the spotlight. He played a ballad from his first album, ‘The Ladder’ and followed it up with a beautiful rendition of the self-penned ‘Pieces’, which was from his second album, ‘Black Bear’.
Two more guests joined the festivities: button accordionist, John Williams, and fiddler, Liz Carroll, both well respected for their contributions to Celtic music. Standing in a circle with the Watkins duo, they added a whole new dimension of rich texture and powerful melody. They were rewarded with huge applause.
As the “who’s-under-the-spotlight-next” format became more transparent, with instrumentalists and singers switching up their perceived roles, the excitement mounted. Sebastian Steinberg ditched his upright bass to perform ‘Just Because’ on acoustic guitar. His baritone voice suited his lively arrangement. The instrumental ‘Gold Rush’ gave a justifiable nod to Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys. (The song was co-arranged by Monroe and Byron Berline.)
‘Hop High’ was a whooping, bluegrass celebration. The Robert Earl Keen cover ‘Feeling Good Again’ was led off by versatile Sara Watkins but the band anticipated every solitary vocal turn.
Drummer Don Heffington abandoned his drum kit throne to strum guitar to his original song based on Tom Wait’s poem, ‘Seeds on Hard Ground’ while Fiona sprawled on the floor, keeping time with mammoth sticks. Then it was her turn to shine. While Tench played haunting piano, Fiona performed Irving Berlin’s tear-stained ‘All Alone’, which harkens back to 1924. When Apple uttered, “You seemed to vanish like a dream,” it was pure, heartfelt heaven. Then the two onstage women shared warring harmonies on the healing, ‘We’ll Cry Together’.
Sean Watkins is a master arranger and his talents merged brightly with keys on the Roger William’s cover, ‘Not in Nottingham’. Each performance was so convincing and culturally enlightening that the audience couldn’t bear to see the show end. Not surprisingly, they stood up and demanded more.
For that first encore, they gleefully chimed in on the hook of ‘On a Long, Hot Summer Day,’ a moving, historical ballad penned by John Hartford, which tributes hard-at-work Midwesterners. All players onboard launched into a gregarious jam as the merry on and offstage voices blended.
‘When I Get Low, I Get High’ was written by Marion Sunshine and recorded in 1936 by Ella Fitzgerald, yet, with her cool, contemporary contralto, Apple artfully preserved the timelessness of this classic ballad with such sensitivity that you’d think she wrote the mellow lyrics by herself.
It goes with out saying that The Watkins Family Hour left in its wake a glorious night of contrasts, but perhaps the biggest payoff came from knowing how deeply first-time Watkins Family Hour attendees inhaled the music. One 24-year-old shared: “It was really, really cool, getting to watch and hear Fiona live with her classic intensity onstage, with another powerful female songwriter, musician and vocalist, bringing together two very different sounds and making them totally compatible.”
Her 26-year-old sister added: “It’s always a true joy to get to see a performer as invested and engaged as Fiona is, in her music. This is my third time seeing her live and I’ll always make time to see her when I get the chance! I loved her in the more traditional ballads, but my favourite part by far was seeing her perform one of her original songs, ‘A Mistake,’ which helped me claw through my teenage years.”
Photos by Philamonjaro