Bluegrass-leaning folk, country, acoustic rock, pop Americana — Sara and Sean Watkins brought a variety of sounds and aesthetics to Terminal West Sunday night to create an enthralling evening of music. It was the first ever Atlanta date for their longstanding Los Angeles-based musical collective, Watkins Family Hour.
The siblings, who, as pre-teens, co-founded the late band Nickel Creek, have fashioned the communal group as more of an informal, highly entertaining music-making event that feels like a variety show mixed with a bit of VH1 Storytellers. Though practiced and fine-tuned, the evening had a friendly, by-the-pants vibe, which made the music, and the musicians, even more endearing.
For the core band, vocalist and fiddler Sarah and guitarist Sean assembled a superb team of multi-instrumentalists — bassist Sebastian Steinberg, pianist Benmont Tench and drummer Don Heffington — and the intense, thrilling singer Fiona Apple. This band of regulars has performed monthly shows, with musician substitutions and occasional omissions, for years at Largo in Los Angeles, the Watkins Family Hour’s home base club. When performing at the club, they seem to play as much for themselves as the audience. The Los Angeles gigs feature a rotating cast of musical friends, with notables like Jackson Browne and Booker T. sitting in; folksy singer Tom Brosseau and former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips joined the group in Atlanta (Brosseau’s reading of “Trails, Troubles, Tribulations” by E.C. Ball with the siblings Watkins was a highlight). Both musicians participated from time to time in the L.A. happenings.
Sara and Sean, as the evening’s ringleaders, created a flow of different ensembles through the night. The Watkins served as anchors in the majority of the performances, but duet pairings of Apple and Tench and a gritty solo blues guitar performance by Steinberg, which was nearly derailed by the sound of a passing train, gave the evening a more intimate feel. The varying ensembles performed a range of cover songs, closing the evening with a rousing version of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” but a few originals from Apple and the Watkins siblings crept into the set.
Apple, by far the most “pop famous” musician on stage, kept the attention on the music, contributing vocals to uptempo covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and “Tombstone Blues” by Bob Dylan with an almost unsettling intensity. When singing, Apple was a focused ball of energy, her voice wrecked with emotion; when others took up the mantle, she sat down cross-legged on the stage to keep the attention on the performers.
Watkins Family Hour is touring in support of a self-titled debut, released in July, which tries to accurately capture the excitement of the monthly Largo events — an almost unattainable goal. Many of the tunes performed in Atlanta live on the recording. Unfortunately, the record comes across as dry and removed. But if buying the record means Sara and Sean will bring their traveling variety show to Atlanta once more, count me in.