Sean Watkins

Sean Watkins

Petra Haden & Jesse Harris

Wednesday, May 11th

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

$18 adv / $20 door

Sean Watkins
Sean Watkins
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sean Watkins has long been known for his work as one-third of the Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek and, more recently, for helming, with sister Sara, the itinerant, genre-hopping Watkins Family Hour ensemble. But in the last year he has more assertively – and impressively – taken on the role of solo artist. What To Fear is a follow-up to 2014's acclaimed All I Do Is Lie, which had been Watkins' first solo effort in nearly a decade, ten years that had been jammed with collaborative projects and a herculean amount of touring. On his own, Watkins displays tremendous warmth and soulfulness as a singer, a refreshing candor and humor as a lyricist, and prodigious skill as an arranger. And he doesn't merely stick with the familiar: On What To Fear, he bolsters an acoustic lineup with a rock rhythm section, bringing drama and drive to these new tracks while keeping intact the emotional intimacy of all the stories he is telling.

As a writer, Watkins deftly juggles the observational and the autobiographical, convincingly taking on the personalities of others – a stalker, a preacher, a cynical newscaster – and then juxtaposing them with a voice that is clearly his own. Watkins' singing unites disparate narrative threads; he's disarmingly honest and sympathetic, no matter whom the character he is channeling might be. Similarly, he has managed to take the work of his acoustic collaborators – -the gifted young Northern Californian trio, Bee Eaters – with the robust bass and drums combo of Matt Chamberlain and Mike Elizondo.

The title track starts off in a deceptively simple way, just Watkins' plaintive voice and acoustic guitar, before the band kicks in, bolstered by a dreamy, Mellotron-generated string section. It's ominous, compelling and surprisingly topical. Watkins could be echoing the words of an evangelist, a sensationalist newscaster, or a fear-mongering political candidate. Watkins quips, "I kind of lucked out with that. I started writing before all the campaign stuff was happening. But something like that is always happening."

Conversely, "Last Time For Everything" is "a mostly true story, from back in my early to mid twenties. The concept of 'a last time for everything' – a friend of mine said that once and I thought, there must be a song with that title. There wasn't any song that I could find so I wrote it. The first thing that comes to mind with a phrase like that would be something like 'the last time you saw someone' but that felt cheap and sentimental. I wanted to celebrate the other side of it, the things that you are never going to do again and be grateful for that, the mistakes from the past, analyzing what you've done and sussing out what to keep and what to let go."

Watkins began composing these new songs as he toured in support of All I Do Is Lie and prepared to hit the road for the first time with Watkins Family Hour, a project that until then had mostly stayed rooted at Largo, the group's favored venue in Los Angeles. Watkins initially envisioned the album as an acoustic string-band session and reached out to the Bee Eaters, a trio he'd become acquainted with after participating in bluegrass camps they conducted in Northern California. Bee Eaters are led by Tashina Clarridge on violin and her brother Tristan on cello. Simon Chrisman plays hammer dulcimer with them, and his instrument gives both a percussive and melodic underpinning to several of these tracks. But, as Watkins' songs developed further in the writing stage, he realized he also wanted to employ a rhythm section, and called on his friends, bassist Elizondo and drummer Chamberlain, who each boast a lengthy list of credits, from hip hop to rock to jazz. Says Watkins, "It's mind-blowing how good they are."

Watkins' original idea was to cut tracks separately with these two groups of musicians. But he found himself with a few days of studio time and decided to record the same four songs with both lineups and then determine what configuration worked best for each tune. What he discovered was that these two approaches weren't mutually exclusive. By combining elements from each session he came up with a unique sound, one that helped define, in a larger sense, where Watkins himself had arrived as a solo musician. As he explains, "I wanted to highlight where I come from musically, the strings and the solos and I wanted this album to more guitar oriented than my last one. I wanted this record to highlight my musical strengths but without getting to comfortable. I really enjoy music that it is, at once, satisfying and surprising. So this record is my attempt at approaching that balancing point between reaching forward and experimenting musically while also celebrating where I come from with regard to the acoustic, bluegrass side of the spectrum."

Unlike most of his peers, Watkins has been a performer for more than 25 years. He was a mere 12 years old when he played his first gig in Nickel Creek, with sister Sara on fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin, at a San Diego pizza parlor. The trio's star ascended quickly; within a few years, a progressive bluegrass following grew into a large mainstream audience. Its 2002 album, This Side, garnered a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy. Since then, Watkins has released discs with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman as the duo Fiction Family and with fellow guitarist Glen Phillips as Works Progress Administration, an eight-piece band featuring a stellar lineup of fellow L.A. session players. He also managed to release three solo efforts along the way. The Watkins Family Hour began as an informal event at Largo, where Sean and Sara could carouse on stage with an ever-changing group of like-minded friends. A core group of musicians became a regular part of the festivities, including pianist Benmont Tench, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and singer Fiona Apple. Together they recorded The Watkins Family Hour disc last year and took their convivial show on the road. What To Fear includes guest-star turns from Sara, as well as Tench, Steinberg and Petra Haden. In fact, the instrumental "Local Honey" was originally written as a kind of Family Hour theme song, for the live show and the group's podcast.

Having friends and family on board has long been a hallmark of every Watkins project. He's also been regularly invited to record and tour with many other musicians, among them Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett. But What To Fear is all about Sean Watkins himself, front and center, as his songwriting matures and his persona as a solo performer blooms.

"For the longest time I didn't feel comfortable in that role, "Watkins admits. "I loved being in bands. But now that I've done songs that I really like– I'm proud of my last one, and even prouder of this one –that makes a big difference when you're traveling solo, stepping on stage by yourself. It's fun to go out on stage – anything is possible. It's gone from feeling daunting to being hopeful and free."

— Michael Hill
Petra Haden & Jesse Harris
Petra Haden & Jesse Harris
Infrequently, pairings come together that make perfect sense. The meeting of two incredible musical minds can produce sound that stands distinctly apart from the work of peers, a magical culmination of the best aspects of both collaborators.

In this case, two unique artists met to make art together for the first time, one, a virtuoso musician, vocalist, composer and interpreter of song, and the other, one of this generation's greatest songwriters and producers. On their new recording, Seemed Like A Good Idea – Petra Haden Sings Jesse Harris, Petra Haden and Jesse Harris have created a powerful recording of finely wrought compositions.

Petra Haden's affinity for music has led her far and wide, from jazz to classical to folk to punk. Daughter of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, her name has become synonymous with eclecticism and technical brilliance. With both her voice and violin, she has collaborated with such talents as the Foo Fighters, Beck, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and her sisters' group, The Haden Triplets. Haden's talents are probably best heard on her two fantastic solo records, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out (Bar-None Records) and Petra Goes To The Movies (Anti Records).

Hailing from New York, Jesse Harris has been a prolific singer and songwriter since the mid-1990s, when he was signed to EMI with the group Once Blue. His output has been incredibly diverse, utilizing elements from jazz, folk and pop music to create an intelligent and honest catalog of compositions. Harris has collaborated with many fantastic artists, most notably writing songs for Norah Jones, from her groundbreaking debut (for which he won the Grammy for Song of the Year for his composition "Don't Know Why"), and for Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Melody Gardot and, most recently, with iconoclast composer John Zorn's The Song Project.

In the autumn of 2013, Haden and Harris were invited to be a part of guitarist/composer Anthony Wilson's collective project The Curators for two nights at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles. The pair got along famously and Harris invited Haden to perform with him on a later performance at the same venue. After hearing Harris's Borne Away album, Haden asked him if he would be interested in producing an album for her.

Geography became a hindrance to their project, as Haden lives in California and Harris in New York. They were able to meet occasionally and write some songs. Harris also began to pick pieces from his repertoire that he felt Haden would command well.

It wasn't until early 2015 when Harris was in Los Angeles promoting a new recording with his group Star Rover that the two were able to get to work in earnest. They planned to go into a studio to record five or six songs but things went so well that they ended up doing an entire album worth of material, most of which was brand new.






The musicians they employed were exemplary. The backbone of the group was the duo Star Rover, featuring guitarist Will Graefe and drummer Jeremy Gustin. A frequent collaborator with Haden, Gabe Noel was enlisted on bass, cello and keyboards. Needing a keyboard player, one night in Largo the duo approached the highly regarded producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, who happily accepted. Rob Moose provided strings and string arrangements and pianist Aaron Parks also provided additional Wurlitzer on a couple of tracks. Of course, Haden's violin was featured along with Harris on guitar and keyboards. Haden's vocal arranging is instrumental on all of the tunes.

As the subtitle of the recording suggests, the majority of the compositions come from the pen of Harris. His breezy, wordless "Autumn Song" opens the album with an evocative tone poem, while "Either Way," a vocal duet, is a loping ode to indecision. The title track is a plaintive confessional answered by the measured optimism of "Sometimes You Have To Choose Sides." "Fool's Paradise" has a desolate beauty, "All The Leaves" nostalgically examines emotional paralysis and the inexorable passage of time, and the gorgeous ballad "Somewhere Down The Road" is heartbreakingly assisted by subtle string swells.

Harris was joined by Haden in the composition of three pieces. Written shortly after Haden's father's passing, "How Could I Have Known" seeks for resolution and closure. "Gone As Those Days" begins as a mournful elegy to the past, pushing through to a catharsis, while "Tell Me What I'm Supposed To Do" closes the disc in a hazy query. Harris wrote lyrics on John Zorn's wistfully beseeching "Song of Innocence" (renamed here as "It Was Innocent") for his Song Project, while the duo's bouncy rendition of Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" is a beautiful standout.

On the new recording Seemed Like A Good Idea, the sum of the parts is astounding and bright. Petra Haden and Jesse Harris's musical gifts fit aesthetically and spiritually, a tremendous achievement for these two craftsmen.