By: Alex Wood
Watkins Family Hour returned for their last of three shows at Old Town School Of Folk Music on Thursday night.
The group, consisting of Nickel Creek siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, Fiona Apple, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers’ pianist Benmont Tench, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Don Heffington, performed an informal performance of covers and originals, packed with guests and surprises throughout.
The tour stemmed from the Watkins siblings’ decade-long run of monthly performances at Largo in Los Angeles, shows used to perfect and experiment with new material, often including guests throughout the evening.
Taken to the road for the first time, the Watkins Family Hour found a perfect setting in Old Town School Of Folk Music, and kept its lively, unpredictable and communal characteristics.
As the lights dimmed on the small auditorium’s stage, the audience fell silent, a fiddle tuning audibly behind the curtain.
Sara and Sean Watkins walked on stage alone, opening the show with a two-minute instrumental, showcasing the fast bluegrass picking and strumming each has become famous for in Nickel Creek.
The remainder of the band joined at it’s finale for a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re The One I Love,” a romping folk number that gave everybody in the band a chance to shine. The drums splashed beneath brushes, fiddle, guitar and piano taking turns for short solos or riffs, Fiona Apple leaning forward to sing the vocals loudly and soulfully in the microphone.
This turned into album track “Where I Ought To Be,” again showcasing Apple’s unparalleled vocal capabilities, able to change from a sweet croon to a raw yell without a second’s notice. The song boasted a honky-tonk flavor, acoustic guitar and piano solos filling the space between verses.
“Don’t Say You Love Me,” penned by Sean, offered a more modern feel, akin to his work with Nickel Creek, followed by the more pop-oriented Fleetwood Mac cover “Steal Your Heart Away,” sang by Sara in her thin but precise soprano voice. As others took vocal duties, Apple sat cross-legged behind the band, watching with genuine bewilderment as the others performed, nodding back and forth and occasionally adding auxiliary percussion via woodblocks.
Banter amongst members was present constantly between (and sometimes during) songs. Apple stood up and joked that “now it’s time for comedy,” leading to a long exchange between her and the Watkins duo, their close personal relationship made clear through the informal chatter.
The band followed with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” to be released soon on a Highway 61 tribute-album. “I chose a song with a lot of words,” Apple joked.
The unexpected cover, different from the Dylan cut on the band’s debut record, was delivered with a massive sound, Sara’s fiddle covering the original’s guitar riff and Tench’s piano keeping the loose rock ‘n roll feel of the original. Apple took a more melodic approach with her vocals, allowing Sara to harmonize when desired.
“Not In Nottignham,” a song originally from the animated classic Robin Hood, was transformed into a sad country tune, delivered with sincerity by Sean.
A highlight of the evening followed with Fiona Apple’s “A Mistake,” the song maintaining the emotional intensity of the original despite the bluegrass backing. Apple’s vocals were unbelievably heartfelt, the singer eventually seeming to take her anger out on the two large woodblocks she held throughout the show, crouching down to slam them on the stage with force when not singing.
After a solo performance of an original piano-ballad by Tench, Apple lent similar vocals to the Boswell Sisters’ “The Object Of My Affection,” the fast-paced delivery met by equally nimble instrumentals, including a fantastic exchange of piano and fiddle solos.
The band then brought out Chicago songwriter Andrew Belle, joking about his height as they dragged out a microphone specifically for him.
“You’re not a hobbit,” Sean joked, referring to the Watkins siblings’ shorter stature.
Belle performed “The Ladder” with Sara and Sean, Sara lending harmonies to the singer’s soulful voice. Belle’s songwriting shared obvious similarities to Nickel Creek, making the songwriter an appropriate choice. The siblings then left stage, leaving only Belle to perform “Pieces” entirely solo.
The band then again took stage, this time with an accordionist, for a performance of the traditional song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” made famous by Lead Belly. Another guest, fiddler Liz Carroll joined for an instrumental hoedown after, performing lightning fast licks with the Watkins siblings and accordionist.
Nickel Creeks’ “21st Of May” was preceded by a story of the song’s meaning, its lyrics referring to the supposed rapture of 2011. Though this caused the audience to laugh throughout the song’s performance, the track showcased Sean’s impeccable ability to play challenging bluegrass guitar parts beneath a perfect vocal delivery.
Bassist Sebastian Steinberg played “She Thinks I Still Care” on guitar, which he referred to as a “pygmy soprano bass,” in a relaxed, primitive style, acceptable in the loose setting the Family Hour was meant to portray. Similarly, drummer Don Heffington performed his take on Tom Waits’ poem “Seeds On Hard Ground” a few songs later, with a simple backing from the rest of the band.
Nickel Creek’s “Somebody More Like You” was another set highlight, explained to have first been developed during the Watkins Family Hour before being taken to the band.
Apple and Tench then covered Irving Berlin’s “All Alone,” the tender piano ballad showcasing Apple’s skill for a devastatingly emotional vocal delivery, using dynamics and a quivering but forceful voice to fill the room with sound, eyes closed and swaying gently back and forth with the microphone.
The band ended the set with Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” a gorgeous closer that utilized three-part harmonies and every musician to create density, Sara and Apple each taking verses throughout.
A standing ovation followed, the audience still on their feet and cheering when the band returned to stage for an encore that nearly blew the set away.
Opening with John Hartford’s Illinois River classic “Long Hot Summer Day,” the band had the audience singing along, Sara’s vocals reaching her highest notes in the melodic verses between the massive, full-band jams that ensued.
She motioned to the band for one more song and followed with Ella Fitzgerald’s “When I Get Low I Get High,” the vocals performed with perfection by Apple, similarities between her voice and the jazz greats easily identifiable even beneath the hot-jazz musical backing.
The band bowed in unison, again receiving a well-deserved standing ovation after a night of collaborative musicianship unlike any other.