Watkins Family Hour Covers LA
By Jake Tully
Upon first impression the gang behind The Watkins Family Hour constitutes the decidedly kitsch (a folkie sibling duo, Benmont Tench and bass courtesy Soul Coughing’s Sebastian Steinberg, to name a few from the stable) and the embodiment of a musical pronouncement from the aging alt-90’s crowd. Who could blame one for balking at the sight of fiddles, large hats and overstimulated glasses? All of this for a live set solely comprised of covers – those of us with predisposition to pretentiousness are ready for the boot and tall glass of 70’s era Tom Waits.
After witnessing The Family Hour live at their Largo residency it soon becomes apparent that the initial accusation is entirely foolish. Let it be said that there is credence behind the acclaim for an act that’s 12 years and running (with those odds who would’ve guessed?) packed with some of the most talented musicians Los Angeles can offer. The collective’s inaugural self-titled release is the celebration of the decade-plus commitment to breathing new life to some of the best songs of the 20th century, and the live celebration of the record’s release was no less miraculous.
The chemistry between Sara and Sean Watkins is perceptible in the most pleasant of manners, having no doubt spent decades laboring over arrangements with one another. Performance aside, their banter is right out of a Smothers Brothers routine, going immediately from joke to a beautiful harmonization only kin can ascribe to. Tench and Steinberg, de facto sidemen of The Watkins, have been so sorely under evaluated in their musical prowess throughout the ages that it’s shocking when they are given cart blanche on the stage.
What clenched the act was the brilliant addition of Fiona Apple’s psychodrama to the mix. Though The Watkins Family never transparently delineates who’s singing lead and who’s tending bar, it was impossible for one to remove their gaze from Fiona the entire set, regardless if she was actively performing or sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat when Sara took lead on a song. When given the reins on a song, Apple’s delivery was unsurprisingly jarring. Apple talent knows no bounds in the context of genre-hopping, working into a frenzied swell over Skeeter Davis and Ella Fitzgerald tunes. Perhaps her greatest feat was during the band’s cover of “Tombstone Blues.” There has never been a more punk version of a Dylan song outside of Dylan’s first electrified performance. Apple’s much-appreciated abuse of her larynx was only second to her bodily contortions to accommodate one of the most lyric dense Highway 61 cuts. It’s terrifying to see her begin a performance. When engrossed in said performance, it’s absolute pleasure.
Of the myriad covers that made it on the record, the clear winner was “Brokedown Palace” the perennial Dead gift that keeps on giving. Or, was it Robert Earl Keene’s “Feeling Good Again?” Apologies, it was most definitely “Where I Ought To Be” wherein Sara and Fiona channeled Skeeter Davis more adeptly than a medium with promise of a Billy Graham lecture. Despite briefing the crowd that the Watkins Family Hour would be a performance solely with covers, sometimes it took a few bars to realize that the band wasn’t playing an original composition. The adoption of the songs seemed so natural it’s a wonder the merch booth wasn’t selling Watkins Family Hour – for Piano, Guitar and Vocals in addition to tour posters.
Overall the performance is admittedly 80% Lake Woebegone, from the ancient ragtime-era piano housed on the side of the stage to the PG-rated bickering between the Watkins. Though, what separates the Largo darlings from NPR is the apparent quest of achieving perfection. While Garrison and his merry-makers can more or less phone in their roots culture entertainment, The Watkins Family Hour is compelled to perform at the highest level. Considering that the band openly deliberated on setlist changes and a few of the troubadours were suffering from colds, the level of professionalism didn’t suffer. The opportunity to see the band work out kinks was proof enough that thoughtful artistry ran the program.
The minute ambience of The Coronet further gave way to the cozy feeling of witnessing a project of passion. The Watkins Family Hour may hold what we call a residency, but in reality it is more of a musically ensorcelled changeling that strives for the most pleasing semblance possible.