If it's December, I must be at Largo (or an approximation of it)! This is just the beginning, folks; in case you're wondering, there's even more where this came from in the next few weeks.
Watkins Family Hour, Largo, December 6, 2007: Technically, I've seen the Watkins Family Hour only once before, but Sean and Sara have popped in at so many Jon Brion gigs that it's easy to forget the delineations. It doesn't take a lot to convince me to come to Largo, but it's still a testament to the Watkins' easy charm and prodigious talent (as well as the huge shifts in my musical tastes) that I'd come down to see their show, even without the guarantee of *ahem* certain special guests.
Here's what you need to know about the Watkins Family Hour: They play originals and covers taken from various eras and musical styles. They don't have a setlist, but certain songs are more likely to be aired. They like to take turns soloing and make sure that every player gets their time in the spotlight. They also make you think that siblings can be musical partners without heading into Osmonds or Jacksons territory--well, maybe with a tip of the hat to the latter, though in the best way possible.
Tonight was Sara and Sean's first gig at Largo since returning from the most recent leg of Nickel Creek's farewell tour, and joining them were familiar cohorts: Benmont Tench and Gabe Wicher. I'm not sure about Gabe, but at this point, I pretty much consider Benmont to be an honorary Watkins. They should really wrap up the paperwork and make the adoption legal.
Though I don't have much to compare it to, they all seemed glad to be back. Sara and Sean mentioned it several times during the performance, and their big smiles and playful spirit spoke volumes as well. The crowd, I think, responded in kind, and I believe it was Sara who called us their best audience ever, for what it's worth.
I didn't keep a setlist, and I'm not familiar enough with their music to know what is and isn't a rarity, but I can report they took on a Benmont original, beautifully sung by Sara and artfully played by Benmont himself. There was another song that caused Sean to break the strings on two different guitars before getting a single word out; ultimately, the nylon string flamenco guitar was the only one hearty enough to take on the bluegrass tune. And to add to the covers tally, they did Jon Brion's "Trouble," Jon Langford's "Tall Buildings" (an audience request), and Hank Snow's "Any Old Time." And there a whole lot of fiddling too!
With all respect to Gabe and Benmont, the night's surprise special guest was Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show. He opened with about a half-dozen songs, at least one showing off a sense of humor that often goes missing in some of the more egregiously earnest folk and Americana songs. He also returned during the main set for a few more tunes with the rest of the band, including "Rock, Salt, and Nails." The version I know best is Jeff Tweedy's cover, and just a couple of months ago, I heard Buddy Miller do it too at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Listening to Willie's version confirmed how much I prefer a spare, acoustic rendering of the song to the full-blown electric take I heard at the festival.
One of my favorite moments in Willie's performance with the rest of the band was a nearly throwaway aside Benmont made while the players were tuning. I just about cackled when Benmont, who must've taken note of Willie's boyish looks and tousled hair, paired with his standard-looking but respectable wardrobe, remarked that we could catch Willie starring in the Bob Dylan movie.
In what I understand has become their traditional closer, the band returned to the stage. While Sean and Sara took up their usual instruments, Gabe sat down at the piano and Benmont slipped into a bass guitar. The song of choice: "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. At the moments when the vocals proved too much for Sara, Benmont kicked in; in fact, he was the star of the song, even when Gabe pitched in exactly on cue with that sweep of the piano keys (the "hey, I did it!" expression on his face was priceless). At the conclusion of the song, it really was time to leave the stage, but I believe Benmont got the last word. After Sean introduced him as "Benmont Jameson" (we think), Benmont added, "And Gabe Lee Lewis." Give that man a mic!
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