CD Reviews

WATKINS FAMILY HOUR

watkins family hour

Sara and Sean Watkins – co-founders of the Grammy-winning acoustic trio Nickel Creek, who were raised literally in the bluegrass scene of North County – have been gathering as the Watkins Family Hour at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles for the past 13 years. There is a warm sense of intimate timelessness to the little theater as though time actually stopped here and one can imagine Hollywood royalty and latter-day vaudevillians haunting the hallways.

The Watkins Family shows started quietly as an opportunity for the brother and sister to relax and air out new material. But the show gradually became a unique musical outlet that gained momentum with a quiet kind of necessity that also added a regular audience to follow the shows. A kind of “Prairie Home Companion” night out. The show has allowed the Watkins to invite friends, including Greg Leisz, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Booker T Jones and others, to experience the pure joy of music without the pressures of recording studios and tour schedules. The band that has organically grown around the Watkins siblings, includes some of the finest veteran session musicians in L.A.’s music industry.

This self-titled album, Watkins Family Hour, is near Americana-roots perfection in performance and sonic production. It includes a generous helping of re-inventions of traditional country and honky-tonk tunes, as well as inventive covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and the Grateful Dead. The album is a work of simplicity and grace that reflects the best instincts of the all artists involved.

The production has a live feel to it, which captures the warmth and creativity of their live shows onto a record. It is a gentle revelation reminiscent of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the early work of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

To label these recordings “covers” doesn’t capture the end result of this album. They are creative revisions that carry the unique brand this community of artists have developed over the years. Watkins Family Hour does more than simply perform other people’s songs. They deliver the tunes in a way that gives them new life.

Sara captures Robert Earl Keen’s tome to his Texas youth, “Feeling Good Again,” to open the album. That is followed up in near-perfect contrast with a Harlan Howard honky-tonk classic, “Where I Ought to Be,” including a beautifully rendered vocal duet by Sara and Fiona Apple. Sean Watkins then re-imagines Roger Miller’s song “Not in Nottingham,” from the Disney-animated film Robin Hood.

The stand out track of the album is Lindsay Buckingham’s “Steal Your Heart Away,” originally recorded by Fleetwood Mac. It’s a pure splash of inspired, heartfelt energy with Sara Watkins’ gentle vocals balanced by an elegant interplay between Leisz’s steel guitar and Tench’s piano. The Petty keyboard player provides the vocal on the Little Brother Montgomery’s Chicago blues standard, “Prescription for the Blues.” Bob Dylan’s obscure “Going, Going, Gone,” from his overlooked Planet Waves album, receives a remarkable interpretation here, with Leisz taking the song into country-blues territory that even Dylan may not have imagined. The traditional “Hop High” maintains the artists’ well-established jamming and rhythmic standards.

The Grateful Dead classic “Brokedown Palace,” is reinvented with a gentle folk framework that allows the lyrics to meld into the sound of the music created. It also reminds us all of the temporary nature of gatherings like the Watkins Family Hour and the need to treasure each moment of musical unity and creativity.

Watkins Family Hour succeeds because it requires the musicians to perform in ways that have allowed the passage of time to resonate in their sound. It’s vintage without being old. It embodies an organic integrity that is carefully woven into each song. They have creative a work on this album that extends and invites us into the family culture of music and the universality of its gatherings, be it in the studio or on stage at a classic old theater.

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