WHO: The L.A. Bluegrass Situation with the Watkins Family Hour
The sounds of old-time Appalachian music were audible even before the audience entered Largo's sold-out Coronet Theater, as a crew of bluegrass musicians strummed, plucked and fiddled an impromptu acoustic set in the courtyard. Inside the theater, sister-and-brother duo Sara and Sean Watkins -- a.k.a. the Watkins Family Hour -- kicked off the first night of the Second Annual L.A. Bluegrass Situation, following a short introduction by actor-comedian Ed Helms, who hosted the four-night jamboree.
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Things started out softly at first, as the siblings stood without microphones in front of the curtain and exchanged lead-vocal turns and harmonized on each other's tunes. Sara Watkins stomped around in her cowboy boots to keep time and sang with a pure, sweet tone, wringing elaborately nimble melodies from her fiddle as Sean followed her deftly on acoustic guitar. They saluted bluegrass legend Bill Monroe with an intimate and achingly spare version of one of his songs before opening the curtain and bringing out their full band, which included slide guitarist Greg Leisz (Matthew Sweet, Emmylou Harris) and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers).
Exchanging jokes and keeping the atmosphere casual, the Watkins playfully alternated original songs like Sean's sarcastic kiss-off to an ex-lover, "Somebody More Like You," with covers by Willie Nelson and an especially touching remake of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Sara cheerfully admitted that many of their pop-folk numbers weren't strictly traditional bluegrass, and Tench's jolly piano embellishments were often more roadhouse bluesy than high-and-lonesome Appalachian.
Still, there were some wonderful interludes, especially when the Watkins were joined by guest stars like Grant-Lee Phillips, whose deep, foghorn vocals anchored a cute ditty about a whale falling in love with an elephant. The energy went up another notch when the band was augmented by mandolinist Chris Thile, the Watkins' former partner in the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. The lanky, amiable and easygoing Thile helped to balance Sara Watkins' onstage intensity on Nickel Creek faves like "Stumptown," not to mention his dazzlingly intricate mandolin solos. The crowd was especially delighted by the virtual Nickel Creek reunion, and Thile and the Watkins obliged with a longer set of Nickel-plated oldies than they'd originally planned. For the night's grand finale, members of the Punch Brothers ambled out onstage to take part in the extended band's jam.
Although Sara and Sean Watkins weren't accompanied by celebrity pals like Fiona Apple, as they were last year at the inaugural Bluegrass Situation, there was more than enough star power and down-home charm this time to make the theater feel like the front porch of a country home. Subsequent nights of the festival would feature the Punch Brothers, more from Ed Helms, and comedian Steve Martin playing banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers, but it's hard to imagine how those shows could top the convivial spirit of opening night.