For singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalists Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, the Watkins Family Hour has long been an oasis from the rigors of the road, a laboratory where they can try out new material or master beloved cover songs. Their monthly show at L.A.’s famed venue Largo has been hailed as a convivial, communal event where they welcome an impressive array of musician friends old and new. While it’s true that fans who aren’t lucky enough to be in L.A. and score a coveted ticket can check out the proceedings via youtube or on the podcasts the Watkins siblings have created, the fun of these evenings is really in being there as the unscripted show unfolds. The Watkins Family Hour is always full of surprises, unexpected guests, one-of-a-kind match-ups; serendipity plays as much of a role as virtuosity. Fiona Apple often joins them, and recent guests have included Dawes, Jackson Browne, Nikka Costa, Booker T. and actor-singer John C. Reilly, as well as comedians Paul F. Tompkins, Nick Kroll and Pete Holmes.
Now Sara and Sean have decided to take their Family Hour format on the road — a kind of musical pop-up shop, if you will — to clubs and concert halls around the country. And to mark this undertaking, this summer they are releasing the first-ever Watkins Family Hour LP on their own Family Hour Records imprint. The album, recorded live over three days in the studio of their friend and producer-engineer Sheldon Gomberg, beautifully captures the freewheeling spirit of the shows. It features Apple and the stellar players who have become a de facto house band: drummer Don Heffington, pedal steel and dobro player Greg Leisz, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and keyboardist Benmont Tench, each of whom take a vocal turn at the mic. The Watkins Family Hour is an all-covers affair; tracks include Sara doing Lindsey Buckingham’s “Steal Your Heart Away,” Sean essaying Roger Miller’s wistful “Not In Nottingham,” from Disney’s 1973 animated Robin Hood, and Apple singing “Where I Ought To Be,” originally performed by Skeeter Davis.
On tour, the Watkinses plan to make every venue they visit a home away from home. In each town, they’ll extend an invitation to the many artists they’ve befriended over the years — through their touring in Nickel Creek, as solo artists, and as frequent collaborators with other like-minded musicians from the worlds of bluegrass, folk, country and rock.
“Taking the Watkins Family Hour on tour and releasing this record feels like the right next step,” says Sara. “The show is about a community of players and that community stretches across the country. If we can’t get everyone to L.A. to do our show, we’ll come to them.”
“The Family Hour has always been something we’ve really loved,” echoes Sean. “It’s been an amazing outlet for us for so many years. Until recently we had thought of it as just an L.A. thing at Largo. But now we feel it’s time to take the show out to more people.”
Sara and Sean, raised in the San Diego area, were eight and twelve years old when they partnered, on fiddle and guitar respectively, with eight year old mandolinist Chris Thile in 1989 to form Nickel Creek. By 2002, the prodigious trio had garnered a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy for its second album, the Allison Krauss-produced This Side. Sara and Sean learned about the original Largo on Fairfax Avenue from Toad the Wet Sprocket singer-songwriter Glenn Phillips and it became their go-to local spot. They started out as audience members but soon were coaxed on stage. Owner Mark Flanagan fostered an open, cooperative environment that attracted an eclectic list of regulars, most famously musician-producer Jon Brion, who established a popular weekly residency, as well as musicians like Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Brad Mehldau. Fiona Apple has long been a familiar face, often joining Brion and now becoming an integral part of the Family Hour.
As Sara recalls, “One day Flanny said to us, you guys should have a show; we’ll call it the Watkins Family Hour. I don’t care if only seventeen people come. And we said okay. We invited a friend of ours, Gabe Witcher [now a Punch Brother], to play fiddle with us. For each show we’d invite different friends to join in and the show became something we planned on whenever we were home from tour for a few days. Back then we were touring almost year round, three weeks on, one week off. The Family Hour show began as a chance to fly by the seat of our pants, play songs we simply liked to play, experiment with new, unfinished original material. It was a good excuse to learn cover songs we always loved, and most importantly to get together with other musician friends from the area, and say hey, we’ve got this show, do you want to bring a couple of songs down? Play by yourself, play with us – whatever you want. In doing that, you get to work up songs with people, practice a little bit, or just wing it and enjoy being in the moment with whomever is on stage and these hundred people in the audience. “
It’s also very natural for the Watkinses. As Sean explains, “Sara and I grew up in the bluegrass scene. People are traveling around, going to festivals. When they are not playing on stage, they are playing off stage around a campsite, at somebody’s house or in a trailer somewhere. That’s the mentality we grew up with; that felt normal.”
Being reared in the tradition of bluegrass and folk, continues Sara, “it gave us this bug that craves this kind of reactive playing, that encourages improvisation and mixing up band members. In bluegrass and roots music, there is this wonderful cross-pollination that happens. It’s very common for someone to be in two or three bands. And that strengthens the individual musician, keeps you on your toes, teaches you how to be a better leader in one situation and a supportive teammate when that’s called for. I feel lucky to experience those different sides of being a musician, to have those kind of moments, those Family Hour moments, where it is always different, and you get to share the same space with musicians who are doing great things – to stand there in awe and try to contribute something special.”
As the Watkins Family Hour has become an established part of the Largo calendar, fitting nicely into the club’s new space at the Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard, the show has evolved to where it truly can be taken on the road – and shared with Sara’s and Sean’s fans around the country. As Sara observes, “It’s become a good blend of organized, planned, arranged harmonies and good quality moments on stage that we’ve prepared… and some great surprises that happen when a guest just remembers a song they want to do or when somebody walks in the back door with their guitar and wants to play a song on a whim. Those moments make it special and that’s the kind of thing we want to maintain when we bring the show to cities across the country. We are coming to towns where we have friends and we can have those moments, even if it’s not our home club. It’s the people on stage who make that happen; it’s just a matter of getting the right group of people together. We are being thoughtful about where we are going on this tour so we can have that sort of flexibility. It will be a very different show in every town.”
Which means that we may all get a chance to be part of the family now.
— Michael Hill