Watkins Family Hour – Watkins Family Hour

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Born out of a long-term residency gig at L.A.’s popular nightclub Largo, Watkins Family Hour is a sort of variety show and spontaneous jam session hosted by multi-instrumentalist siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, formerly of the progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek. Since 2002, the Watkins siblings have been offered the Largo stage for one night a month to showcase new songs, collaborate with friends, play random covers, and essentially let their hair down in any way that pleases them. A hotspot for an eclectic swath of musicians and comics, Largo has generated a wide variety of unscripted Family Hour guest spots from people like Jackson Browne, John C. Reilly, Booker T., and Pete Holmes. Over the years the Watkins‘ show has taken on a loose structure with L.A. veterans Benmont Tench (piano), Greg Leisz (pedal steel, Dobro), Sebastian Steinberg (bass), and Don Heffington (drums) setting up shop as the Family Hour house band. Coming from a roots music background of folk, country, and bluegrass, it’s the type of venture that would be right at home in Nashville, but is a bit of an anomaly in L.A., where they’re more likely to bump elbows with Largo regulars like Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, and Fiona Apple, the latter of whom joins them on their first studio venture. With the idea of taking the Family Hour on the road, producer Sheldon Gomberg brought Sean and Sara into the studio along with their house band to record a diverse set of covers that captures the casual attitude and frequently stunning musicianship of their monthly live shows. Perhaps the best thing about Watkins Family Hour‘s debut is the communal feeling of a group of seasoned musicians playing to their collective strengths. In this band no one is a star and, at one point or another, nearly everyone takes a turn at the mic. Sean Watkins‘ easygoing rendition of Roger Miller‘s “Not in Nottingham” and Sara‘s heart-rending version of the Grateful Dead‘s 1970 classic “Brokedown Palace” are immediate highlights, as is the spunky Harlan Howard-penned “Where I Ought to Be,” in which Sara and guest singer Fiona Apple trade verses in between some tasty pedal steel work from Leisz. The album’s most inventive arrangement is the wonderful “Hop High,” a traditional Appalachian song that segues from a darkly intimate folk-blues intro by Sara into a fiery showstopper that is as strong a showcase for the band as you’ll find outside of seeing them live. As a stage experiment, Watkins Family Hour
 has thrived for 13 years, and now with a fine record to document their efforts, they’ve hit on a format that could offer boundless possibilities for years to come.

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