Having chairs set in rows tends to have a civilising effect on a crowd but tonight at Bush Hall the attendees need no reminders when it comes to audience etiquette. A respectful silence falls over them long before support act Dietrich Strause has got himself comfy behind the mic and we're sat so still and expectant I suspect we're actually starting to freak him out. Undeterred, Strause paddles through his set of deftly fingerpicked and tender folk songs perhaps a little too apologetically but is nonetheless warmly received.
An even greater hush and an even warmer welcome (we are, it seems, the politest audience in the world) is reserved for Sara Watkins. Armed only with her fiddle, three pizzicato chords and a little footstomping, she sets about dropping every jaw in the room with the Davíd Garza-penned 'Too Much' and her voice, (which has matured nicely since her Nickel Creek days) sitting somewhere in between Natalie Maines and Patty Griffin, soars around the generous acoustic of the room. After a brief, embarrassed pause to clean her specs, Watkins trades violin for ukulele for the fingerpicked ‘You and Me', before switching to parlour guitar for the catchy 'Say So' and 'Without A Word'. Watkins then returns to fiddle for a dizzying display of her instrumental chops. And this is how the set rolls for the rest of the night, flipping between instruments and breaking up the very personal songs with these occasional splashes of fiddle-de-dee, reminding us of her bluegrass beginnings (she did, after all, form Nickel Creek back in 1989 at the ripe old age of eight). It brings a certain variety to proceedings and stops things getting too heavy, man.
The restraint of 'Like New Year's Day', accompanied by an ever-so-gently picked semi-acoustic, paves the way to the title track of the current record, her first for the New West label. 'Young in All the Wrong Ways ' is a hand-grenade of a song, swerving unexpectedly between extremes of light and shade and Watkins somehow manages to recreate its studio bombast with just one guitar and a vocal that turns on a dime. The Politest Audience in the World is pretty comprehensively floored.
It's at this point that Watkins reveals she's left her setlist backstage and we're reminded (as with the glasses-cleaning) that she is in fact a mere mortal, just like us. She peels us back off the carpet (we're at Bush Hall, remember) with the playful, jaunty country of 'One Last Time' before switching back to the uke for the quite beautiful ‘My Friend', from her solo debut. Highlights of the rest of the set include the solitary Nickel Creek song ‘Anthony’, during which we are enlisted for some massed whistling; the hope-filled ‘Take Up Your Spade’ from second album Sun Midnight Sun and an unexpected guest in the form of Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones (he produced Watkin’s first record), supplying mandolin and mandocello on a few numbers.
Watkins' encore is made up of two covers: Jackson Browne's ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’ and Buddy Holly's ‘Early in the Morning’. After which everybody files out of the venue in an orderly fashion, extremely content. The team from Red Guitar Music don’t leave without a trip to the merch table to buy a copy of the album and afterwards we discuss Sara Watkins’ onstage manner, which is somewhat enigmatic. Like a lot of singer-songwriters it is full of nervy-yet-charming gabbling and earnest back-storytelling but at the same time she seems downbeat and distant. I can’t decide whether it’s aloofness, jet-lag or a genuine sadness attached to some of the more poignant songs. Perhaps it’s a bit of all three. It could, of course, have something to do with a shock US election result being delivered the day before this particular show. In any case it’s not necessarily off-putting and, in fact, if anything it has the effect of drawing us closer in. Watkins’ songs are certainly rich enough to merit some deeper listening and if you’re unfamiliar with her work outside of Nickel Creek and The Decemberists then you’d do yourself a great service by putting some - if not all - of her solo output on your Christmas list.
Gig Date: November 10th 2016
Review by Rich Barnard.