Words by: Josh Klemons | Images by: Eve Copeland
Sara Watkins :: 04.25.09 :: 9:30 Club :: Washington, D.C.
You may not know the name Sara Watkins, but you probably know her old band and you definitely know the producer of her latest album. Watkins was the fiddle player and a vocalist for Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek, a band that recently went on hiatus after almost twenty years together. In case you are wondering, Watkins is 27 years old. She just released her first solo album featuring huge names like Gillian Welch, Chris Thile and Ronnie McCoury, and it was produced by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. How many 27 years old can boast that?
Her latest project finds Watkins on the road with her brother Sean Watkins, the guitarist and fellow vocalist from Nickel Creek, Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Don Heffington on snare drum and percussion. Sara hails from Southern California, but her sound today is all Nashville. This project ripped through gospel and bluegrass standards, John Hartford and Jimmie Rodgers songs, and threw in some Dylan and Morrissey for good measure.
At one point, Sara asked the audience to pick out a fiddle tune they wanted to hear. After many suggestions, she and the audience finally agreed on "Whiskey Before Breakfast," which she dedicated to honorary Nickel Creek member and bassist Mark Schatz. Sean joked that Mark "loved this song," and Sara corrected him, "No, he lives it." She walked over and causally sang the melody to her brother, who wore a thin black tie with his untucked button down shirt, apparently needing to teach him the tune. Then, he started calling out the chords to Steinberg on bass. I furrowed my brow and wondered what to expect. She then asked Sean how he wanted to do it. "Why don't we share the melody?" he responded. Of course, there was nothing to worry about. They did a surprisingly original take on an otherwise very standard fiddle song. These kids still bicker like brother and sister, but they play like pros.
At a mere 32 years of age, Sean Watkins has established himself as one of the strongest guitar players in the bluegrass and acoustic scene today. He picks melodies on top of chord changes, he knows his place in a band - be it as a duet with just him and his sister, or with the full band behind them – and he can rip a rock guitar solo when he needs to, but watch him take a refrain over any bluegrass song and try not to smile. I dare you. Hell, you might even laugh out loud. These two have been professional musicians the majority of their lives and it comes through in every song.
Listening to Sean and Sara sing gospel classic "River of Jordan" could be a spiritual moment unto itself. But, Sara brings out the honky-tonk with her fiddle and her cowboy boots when she wants to. She plays the ukulele surprisingly well, and has clearly learned a lot from her time with Alison Kraus. They closed out the 90-minute set with a rock & roll version of John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days." It was on the breakdowns of this track that John Paul Jones' presence stepped in and made sure that everyone in the room knew that he believed in Sara and that he had been a part of all of this.
|Sara Watkins :: 04.25 :: Washington, D.C.|
The band played a three-song encore. Sara started it with solo uke. Sean stepped in and accompanied her with a beautiful chordal melody midway through the song, and then faded back out of the spotlight and let her finish the piece alone. Then, the band rejoined the Watkins siblings and Sara asked the audience if they would rather hear a song by Morrissey or Stone Pony. It was a decisive choice for the audience and they played "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get." They closed it out with a Tim O'Brien tinged take on Dylan's "Forever Young."
Again, you may not know the name Sara Watkins today, but I think that you will know it soon enough. The Watkins siblings are not alone in their journey, but they are a big part of a new generation of musicians picking up where bluegrass left off. And I, for one, am excited to see where they wind up.
Sara Watkins is on tour now, dates available here.
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