Show Review – Sara Watkins, 5.9.09, Southgate House, Newport, KY

Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins

Written by Nate Rosing

Just shy of a month into the first solo tour of her career, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins closed the midwestern part of the tour at the Historic Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky on Saturday, May 9. She’s been out on the road in support of her self-titled debut, a collection of both original material and traditional folk and gospel cover tunes.

The album was produced by the legendary John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and features a wide array of guest appearances, including Jones, as well as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Ronnie McCoury, Chris Eldridge, Benmont Tech and Tim O’ Brien, to name a few. Joining her on the road, is Sebastian Steinberg (of Soul Coughing fame) on the electric bass, as well as her brother, Sean, also of Nickel Creek.

In 2007, the three members of Nickel Creek (Sara, Sean and Chris Thile) took an indefinite hiatus, with each concentrating on various solo projects. Chris Thile has gone on to form the Punch Brothers, while Sara and Sean remain just as close as ever.

The Watkins siblings also have a weekly artist-in-residency gig called the Watkins Family Hour, where they perform some of their favorite tunes at a Los Angeles club. Aside from touring with his sister and playing in the Watkins Family Hour, Sean is also involved in a project with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, called Fiction Family. They’ll be playing at this year’s Bonnaroo Music Festival, with Sara handling the piano duties.

Getting back to Sara…

Going into the show, I had not yet heard the new album, so I was anxious to learn what exactly Sara Watkins means as a solo artist, as opposed to the fiddler who spent eighteen years with Nickel Creek. While there was no surprise regarding her talent, I was somewhat surprised to learn about some of her influences and favorite tunes.

The majority of her twenty-three song set came from the catalogues of other artists, but that’s okay. The soon-to-be twenty-eight year old Sara is an excellent interpreter of music, as she should be, after spending nearly twenty years as a professional musician. Sara and the band were able to put different spins on some of the covers, some of which were unrecognizable to me.

While Jimmie Rodgers “Any Old Time” kept an old-timey, traditional feel, Sara replaced his legendary yodeling skills with the sweet sounds of her fiddle. Almost the same can be said for her take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “In the Early Morning Rain.” While she once again added some nice fiddle work, it was her angelic voice that really let this tune become her own.

Norman Blake’s “Lord, Won’t You Help Me” provided a somewhat melancholic feeling with the sounds that her fiddle produced, although at the same time, the tune remained hopeful and positive, as it seemed almost like a prayer to God.

It didn’t all feel sad and melancholic though. David Garza’s “Too Much” gave off an upbeat feeling, which could’ve made you get on your feet and dance, but for the most part, the crowd seemed to just sit back in their seats, giving Sara and company the respect they deserved, just letting them play as they watched the beauty unveil before their eyes.

Another positive feeling song was “Different Drum”, a song written by Michael Nesmith but made famous by Linda Ronstadt. While the song kept the soul that Ronstadt had given it, I can’t help but think that maybe they also added a little bit of what the Greenbriar Boys had given it. The bluegrass band were the original one’s to record the track.

Did I mention that Sara played the ukulele on “Different Drum”? That’s right. She can play just about anything with strings. Other song’s that featured her on the uke was the Nickel Creek classic, “Anthony”, with the crowd doing a good job with the whistling parts, as well as Tom Waits “Pony”, which she performed solo.

While they performed nearly everything on the disc, some of these covers were just sort of thrown in there. Songs not on the album included Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jon Brion’s “Trouble”, a Jimmy Martin bluegrass tune and a Morrissey song – sorry, I didn’t catch the name of the Morrissey song, as I’m not too familiar with either him or the Smiths.

But the handful of original tracks we got were just as good as the covers, if not better. You might even say that these songs are among the best in her repertoire. Songs like “My Friend”, “All This Time”, as well as the instrumental numbers like “Freiderick” and “Jefferson.”

Although she just sort of appeared in the background throughout her Nickel Creek tenure, with a few exceptions, it wasn’t until 2005’s “Why Should the Fire Die?” that she began to write with a deeper sincerity.

While her solo career may just be getting started, I am certain that she will do just fine, that she’ll be making albums for a long time to come, with or without Nickel Creek. She’s been at this music thing nearly her whole life, has already created a ton of material, as well as having made a ton of friends in the business along the way.

They ended the regular set with John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day”, which was followed by a long, energetic, cheerful standing ovation.

They played four songs in the encore, with Sara playing alone on the first, choosing Radiohead’s “No Surprises” as the second, a song about Kentucky as the third (it may have been “Blue Moon of Kentucky”). They ended the evening with a song they used to play in the Nickel Creek days, called “Hop High My Lulu Gal.” Once again a long, energetic, cheerful standing ovation followed.

The band stuck around after the show, talking with many a fan, myself included.