Sara and Sean Watkins have been playing regular shows at Los Angeles’ Largo club since roughly 2002. The Watkins Family Hour, as it’s called, has been a place for the siblings and their friends to try out new material, goof around on cover songs, and just play music with whoever shows up. It’s a gig that’s endured the siblings’ world tours as part of Nickel Creek as well as fit in between their various solo releases and side projects. Now that the touring cycle for 2014’s Nickel Creek comeback album A Dotted Line is finished and fellow Creeker Chris Thile has gone back to Punch Brothers, the Watkins have decided to take a version of the Family Hour out on tour.
To give those who don’t live in L.A. a taste of what to expect, Sean and Sara got together with a group of Family Hour regulars and recorded this self-titled album, a jaunty, breezy collection of covers from a wide variety of sources. Sara gets the bulk of the lead vocals across these 11 songs, but nearly everyone in the band gets at least one chance to step up to the mic, which perfectly captures the feeling of a loose, anything-goes variety show.
Sara gets things started with the appropriately titled “Feelin’ Good Again”, a Robert Earl Keen song about visiting a favorite local club to find your favorite band playing and all your friends already there. It has a lived-in, easygoing feel that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the album. Second song “Where I Oughta Be”, a classic country tale by Harlan Howard, features Fiona Apple dueting with Sara. Apple’s husky delivery works surprisingly well with the lyrics about getting an invitation to the wedding of your ex-girlfriend and the friend you introduced her to.
Sean gets involved with Roger Miller’s “Not in Nottingham”, from Disney’s animated Robin Hood. Like many of the songs on the album, this track benefits from having a full ensemble of players who also know exactly when to take the spotlight and when to back off. So a simple vocals and acoustic guitar track gets filled out by piano, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, and bass, as well as quiet percussion. Sean also takes on Bob Dylan (and the Band) with a version of “Going Going Gone”, from Dylan’s 1974 album Planet Waves. This is an instance where the loose vibe works in the band’s favor, as there isn’t any real pressure to bring something new or unique to a Dylan song. It’s just a very listenable, straight-up cover of one of Dylan’s less-famous tracks.
Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench is the first backing player to try lead vocals on the record, and his take on the classic piano blues tune “Prescription for the Blues” is appropriately gritty. Sara’s fiddle ornamentations mesh very nicely with Tench’s piano to make the short song a lot of fun. Bassist Sebastian Steinberg, who played with Soul Coughing in the ‘90s and has done lots of L.A. session work in the 21st century, sings the slow ballad “She Thinks I Still Care”, which goes on for a full five minutes and overstays its welcome. On the other hand, drummer Don Heffington’s equally slow take on “The King of the 12 Oz. Bottles” has a lot more energy. The song, from Fear singer Lee Ving’s country period, has a sardonic point of view: “So much beer and so little time”. It works much better than the straight up “woe is me” outlook of Steinberg’s song.
As Sara fills out the rest of the record, she goes from upbeat on the late period (2003) Fleetwood Mac song “Steal Your Heart Away” to a slow-fast-slow take on the traditional “Hop High.” The record ends with her singing the wistful but pleasant Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain” and the Grateful Dead staple “Brokedown Palace,” which fits in perfectly with the overall easygoing country-rock vibe of the album.
Watkins Family Hour is a slight but enjoyable album without pretensions to being anything more than slight and enjoyable. This is nobody’s main gig and there’s no real pressure here. Fans of the Watkins or any of the other band members will probably enjoy the record as long as, like the band members themselves, they don’t go in with unreasonable expectations.