I'm working my way through only-at-Largo events, and the Watkins Family Hour has come up. Finally, a real-world application of my former rules of rock tourism (rule number two: cram as many shows into a single trip as possible)!
The Watkins Family Hour, Largo, December 21, 2006: Somewhere during my slow sidle toward twang, Nickel Creek popped up, and to be perfectly honest, I was skeptical for no good reason other than my own idiosyncratic bias. But on the strength of other people's recommendations and their own sterling reputation, I caught them once, though it was from afar at a music festival while I waited for Wilco to come onstage. It helped that they did Jon Brion's "Trouble" that day as well.
But over the years, Sara and Sean Watkins have won me over with their appearances at Largo, and tonight was my opportunity to see them on their own merits. Sure, the message on Largo's answering machine promised surprise guests, but the tease hasn't been a motivating factor for me for a long time. Rather, I just wanted to hear some good music in a welcoming environment. Considering Sean and Sara's substantial catalog of titles, as well as their treasure trove of favorite covers, I knew that I wouldn't have to worry about the night's song selection.
Thanks to Evonne's tip, I knew that the Watkins Family Hour is an incredibly loose affair, with a lot of song decisions settled by audibles and impromptu consultations, à la what may be my favorite show of the year and nearly every multiple-artist congregation I've ever witnessed at Largo.
The show started off seemingly deliberately, with just Sean and Sara onstage, but almost immediately, they were joined by Benmont Tench on piano, then by Mike Witcher on dobro. In what I take to be the norm at Largo, the players traded off solo turns for each song. Benmont extended his streak as Largo's ultimate team player, turning out note after endless wonderful note, while somehow maintaining that unassuming, effortless air that only makes you want to hear more of his piano magic. Sean and Sara were both very laid-back leaders, happy to let others take the spotlight as the song required.
As it was the Christmas show, we got to hear a bunch of seasonal favorites, with the help of even more guests. Fiona Apple came out for a couple of songs, including a very different "Frosty the Snowman" than most of us are used to. It was sort of strange to see Fiona's wispy shadow of a figure in contrast to Sara Watkins's glowing health, but leave it to Largo to bring their talents together.
Paul F. Tompkins dropped in as well, and he threw himself into the festivities, including a shambolic but charming version of "Baby It's Cold Outside." He also treated us to his own hilarious material, including a joke about the hidden meaning of the greeting "happy holidays" (translation: "Happy Hanukkah, potential Jewish person").
Finally, toward the end of the show, while the band performed "Different Drum," a lanky figure slipped in through the side door and found a spot for himself and his celeste on the tiny stage. Hey, what do you know? It was Jon Brion, who went to town on the song, accommodations (or lack thereof) be damned.
Though Jon didn't seem to mind either way, Largo staff was able to throw together a couple of milk crates together for him during the between-song break, before Fiona returned for "White Christmas," the faux closer. The band took a short encore break before coming back for the real finale. True to form, they took a little while to decide on how to close the show. At first, it seemed like we'd lose Benmont and Jon, but Sara and Sean lured both of them back; in my book, Sean won brownie points by snaring Jon's participation in his insistence that no Hank Williams track is complete without a celeste.
As far as I'm concerned, Benmont and Jon have carte blanche to do as they please onstage, but I was especially tickled by their respective solos, followed by their dueling keyboards on "Hey Good Looking." In the meantime, Sara and Sean belted out the tune with just the right combination of verve and mischief.
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, and Greg