Watkins Family Hour (Photo by Jacob Boll)
Siblings Sara and Sean Watkins recently brought a little bit of their hometown of Los Angeles to The Birchmere, performing as the Watkins Family Hour. Known for their work in the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, Sara’s participation in the supergroup I’m With Her, and their solo careers, they’ve been running the Family Hour as a residency for 20 years. It’s a musically diverse showcase that’s come to include a variety of guests, and a couple of them — namely Willie Watson and Rich Hinman — were on hand to accompany the duo.
Sean and Sara are known for the diversity of their styles, even as they’re grounded in a distinctly rootsy, acoustic format. They’re renowned for their instrumental skill, which Sara showed off on fiddle and Sean on acoustic guitar. There were songs that played to their bluegrass roots — Virginia’s own Jim & Jesse were covered, as was Roscoe Holcomb, and Sara played “You and Me,” which she told the audience is “about the personal monuments I have in my life.”
Watch Watkins Family Hour perform “You and Me” live for The Bluegrass Situation on YouTube:
But the range of music on display Sunday went far beyond the realm of bluegrass, even broadly conceived. The show began with a cover of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside.” The set included “The Late Show” by Jackson Browne, who has been a guest at their residency, and who provided harmony vocals when they recorded the song. (Willie capably filled in for the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer on vocal harmonies.) They also covered “Hypnotize” by the Tune-Yards, who are about as far from bluegrass as anything I can imagine. The siblings also shared a song by one of their favorite songwriters, Tom Russo, who now has a public radio show in Fargo, North Dakota.
When she introduced “Miles of Desert Sand,” Sara mentioned they grew up in a “very Christian household.” That song tackles immigration through the immigrant story they’re most familiar with, the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Stream “Miles of Desert Sand” by the Watkins Family Hour on YouTube:
Earlier in the set, they played a song Sean had written in response to the preacher Harold Camping’s prediction of the apocalypse on May 21, 2011. I asked, “What about time zones?” to which Sean replied, “You’ve clearly seen this show before, because I had the same question.” He mused on how he watched the date turn to the 21st in New Zealand with no end times in sight, calling it “sort of a Y2K situation.”
In addition to providing harmonies, Watson did a few of his songs. He originally performed “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” in the Coen Brothers movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Many of his songs are interpretations or adaptations; he set Sterling A. Brown’s poem, “Slim Greer in Hell,” which he found in The Black Poets 1865-1965, to music.
There were some great stories shared by the siblings, including the time when they, as the project Mutual Admiration Society, got to tour with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin as their drummer for two weeks. One of the songs that added to their repertoire was the old Lead Belly classic “Gallows Pole.”
Other songs included “The Cure,” “Just Another Reason,” and a country tune by Stuart Hamblen, “(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You.” The set ended with an old Charlie Jordan jazz number, “Keep It Clean,” which Sean explained referenced many of the off-color jokes of its time (the ‘30s). For their encore, they sent the audience home with the Townes Van Zandt’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” which they encountered in the closing credits of The Big Lebowski. It all comes back to the Coen Brothers, doesn’t it?