Text by Adam Perlmutter

Photos by Roman Cho
Sarah-Watkins-violin-player

Sarah Watkins

As a member of Nickel Creek, the preeminent alternative bluegrass ensemble, Sara Watkins is no stranger to large venues. But once a month, Sara and her older brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, who also is in Nickel Creek, host the Watkins Family Hour, an intimate gathering where musician and comedian friends join in performance in their home base of Los Angeles. It’s fitting, given the siblings are purveyors of vintage Americana, that the Watkins Family Hour is held in a great old theater, Largo at the Coronet, in West Hollywood.

The Coronet Theater opened in 1947 with the world premier of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, and was long a premier L.A. venue for theater and non-mainstream film.

It narrowly missed being leveled for an Urban Outfitters in 2008, before Largo took over the theater. The Watkins Family Hour is a long-running institution.

It debuted in 2002, when Largo was in a smaller West Hollywood location, a former Hungarian restaurant without a proper stage and only enough room for 100 seats.

At that time, Nickel Creek had already released four albums and earned a couple of Grammy Awards, though the Watkins siblings and their cohort on the mandolin, Chris Thile, were only in their early 20s. “My brother and I started going to Largo and got to know the owner, [Mark] Flanagan,” Sara recalls. “One day, he suggested we start our own show. He said something like, ‘I don’t care if only 17 people show up,’ and gave us the open invitation to try whatever we wanted.

“Nickel Creek was doing a lot of touring then, and the Family Hour became a really great outlet when we got home, to play our favorite cover songs and traditional numbers, as well as songs we were working on writing. It’s gone from being an anomalous side project to something that’s a big part of my life.”

Audiences outside of L.A. have been able to check out the Watkins Family Hour through its podcasts. But this summer the show took to the road for the first time on a U.S. tour, in support of a self-titled debut album (on Family Hour Records) that captures the show’s relaxed energy.

“We had no intention of making a record,” Watkins says. “We didn’t want to try to put our finger on what happens onstage and recreate it. But our friend Sheldon Gomberg has a great studio and wanted to record us. “So we just went in and ran through a bunch of songs in our repertoire, live and with everyone in the same room using as few mikes as possible.

“We didn’t get too precious with any of the performances.”

Sarah Watkins

I catch the Watkins Family Hour on a May evening. The venue’s website warns of the consequences of arriving late for a show, so I rush through the lobby—which the composer Igor Stravinsky, a patron of the theater, painted for the 1947 opening—and settle into the main room. I watch as first a middle-aged contingent negotiated the narrow rows and then the young urban creatives filtered in, those within earshot talking about their latest projects, filling the bulk of the theater’s 280 seats.

Promptly at showtime, after an announcer strongly discourages the use of cellphones, the comedian Pete Holmes kicks things off with jokes centered around Lululemon exercise gear for men and a Green Eggs and Ham T-shirt. After Holmes’ mini set, the Watkins siblings and their core ensemble—ace session steel guitarist Greg Leisz; pianist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; bassist Tyler Chester, sitting in for Sebastian Steinberg; and drummer Don Heffington—take the stage.

Sara Watkins, now 34, is not the child prodigy she was when Nickel Creek first came together, in 1989. She wears a black dress and tall boots and fashionable horn-rimmed eyeglasses that give her an erudite look. Onstage she has a physical gravity that extends to her fiddle playing, with its honeyed tone and its rootedness in the bluegrass tradition.

Though Watkins’ technique on the fiddle is formidable, to say the least, her playing at the Family Hour is a long way from indulgent. Rarely soloing, she plays crisp accompaniments, many seemingly improvised, always perfectly suiting the context, whether her own songs or the music of Matt Hales, a.k.a. Aqualung, the English singer-songwriter among the evening’s guests. Her singing, whose timbre and inflection pair neatly with that of her fiddle, is similarly on point.

Regardless, “I’m actually most comfortable on the fiddle,” Watkins later tells me on the telephone. “It’s always been my home base.”

At the Largo show, Watkins plays the same fiddle she’s used since she decided her previous instrument was too bright for recording purposes. In 2004, she hopped on a short flight from Southern California to Oakland, to visit Ifshin Violins, where she found her current companion.

“There was a new employee working there, and he let me lock myself in a room all day while he brought me many different instruments,” Watkins says. “I decided on an English fiddle from 1910. It’s not a name brand, and it’s not particularly pretty. It took a minute for us to become really good friends, but after several years we came to an understanding, and now I really love it. The perfect bow is another story—let me know if you have any good leads!” To gauge the audience’s reaction to one of her own songs, Watkins plays “The Love That Got Away,” from an upcoming solo album, the follow-up to 2012’s Sun Midnight Sun. She swaps out her fiddle for a luthier-made ukulele. “It’s a little tenor uke that my friend Andy Powers [now the master luthier at Taylor Guitars] made for me ten years ago when he was working out of his dad’s garage,” she says. “He had some extra rosewood, but not large enough for a guitar, so he offered to make me a uke.

“I often use the uke for songwriting—I did most of my writing for my first record [self-titled, 2009] on it,” she continues. “It’s just so much easier to curl up in a corner with a uke than a fiddle. And guitar is too distracting because I’m not as good on the instrument as I’d like to be.

“The uke is a nice gateway instrument; I can play some really lovely chord voicings on it, less defined chords [than in traditional functional harmony] that melodies can wind their way through.”

Songwriting is a relatively new outlet for Watkins. She wrote bits and pieces here and there in her late teens, but feels like she really didn’t have much to say at that time. Things changed when Watkins was in her early 20s and toured with the singer-songwriter Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame, also a Family Hour guest. “Glen had everyone in the band write a song a day,” Watkins says.

“He invented a title, often an asinine one, and everyone in the group would write a song—two verses and a chorus, even better with a bridge—by that same title.

“It was a great game, the whole point being: just write a song and don’t worry about having it be a profound revelation in the inner workings of your soul.

Sarah-Watkins-performing-with-her-violin

“The important thing is not to try to do great work, but just to work, and then great things will come through experience.” As much as the Watkins Family Hour is about showcasing new and great things and playing with friends in different orbits—the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, the actor John C. Reilly, and the multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones are just a few of the artists who’ve appeared on the show—it’s also a return to the sibling’s roots.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when, between full-ensemble numbers, Watkins and her brother break off into a duet, performing an instrumental version of the traditional English nursery rhyme “Polly Put the Kettle On.”

“We’ve been through a lot together. Growing up in a band together as a brother and a sister we would fight all the time,” Sara says. “But we’ve learned to get along, with far fewer explosions than when we were in our teens. It’s a great skill to have learned, how to coexist and find a way to work together.

“Bands break up—most do in time—but family, on the other hand, they’ll always be around.”

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