I think, officially, we can all say that SF Sketchfest is more than just a comedy festival. It’s evolved into, more or less, a place where people that create can present their wares with as much or little levity as they so desire. The Watkins Family Hour performance was hardly a straight ahead comedy show. In fact, it was hardly even a straight variety show. Heck, it even lasted 90 minutes, so calling it an hour is, well, a bold faced lie! It was, however, pure entertainment from a crew of some of the most talented people on earth.
The show opened up with Sara Watkins on fiddle and lead vocals, her brother Sean Watkins on guitar and vocals, fleshed out by Don Heffington on drums and Tristan Clarridge on bass. The opened with “You & Me,” a stunning track of Watkins’ 2012 release Sun Midnight Sun. Then, Sean got to take the lead on one of his solo tracks, “I’ve Known You Since,” with Heffington eschewing his drum stick to play with his bare hands. Two stunning folk songs played with gorgeous precision in the Marines’ Memorial Auditorium, a room that is entirely under utilized for music.
Of course, this is not a straight ahead bluegrass concert by any means. We were promised surprises and guests, and the first of these came out very early on in the set. We were greeted by Berkeley’s own Tristan Clarridge of cello and Micheal Witcher on dobro. Their guest shot gave us the very first laugh out loud moment of the night, with the tongue in cheek Armageddon ballad, “21st of May,” dedicated to Harold Camping, a man that knows a thing or two about rapture.
The next guest was Tom Brosseau, doing an abbreviated version of the same set he did the previous night at The Verdi Club, doing three quick songs with Sean Watkins filling out the sound with some impressive guitar leads. He did “Cradle Your Device,” which brought the second loud chuckle from the room, “Stuck On The Roof Again,” dedicated to Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty, and brought out the full band for the folk standard “Long Haired Preacher.”
The next guest interrupted the set during a furious bluegrass rave up by the Watkins. They were killing it, and I was almost a little sad that they were interrupted by the masked vigilante J.W. Stillwater. Stillwater is a character created by Paul F Tomkins, and I believe he was first introduced on Comedy Bang! Bang! a few weeks ago. It was silly, as a vigilante dressed like Zorro was highly unnecessary considering the circumstances. Nonetheless, The Watkins’ did a fine job a faking annoyed throughout the set, but then closed out his portion with a fine performance of the Bell Brigade song “Loser” with either Stillwater or Tompkins on vocals. I’m not sure if he was still in character at that point, but his singing voice far exceeded my expectations.
I pride myself in having a vast knowledge of American pop music. That being said, it’s almost impossible to know all of the greats. However, the fact that I heard Loudon Wainwright III for the first time tonight made me feel like I really hadn’t done my homework. He is a warm and engaging performer with a fantastic voice, excellent and unique guitar playing skills, and, based on tonight’s set, can write an amazing song. He opened with a delightful ditty called “Brand New Dance,” then took that straight into a song about the difficulty in finding a good time to break up that I believe to be called “Let’s Not Split.” (If any readers can find me confirm this, I’d be delighted. The lyrics I wrote down don’t appear to be on the web) He introduced a song called “I Knew Your Mother” by telling an amusing tale of getting greeted by a fan outside the venue before the show. He got out of his car and a gentleman told him that he would be helping him with his guitar. As they walked into the venue, he handed Wainwright a letter. The letter asked him to ask his son, Rufus Wainwright, if he would leave a message on their outgoing voicemail. Wainwright seemed slightly offended, and almost threw away the letter, but then decided to keep it.
After a few more pieces of Watkins led music, including a performance of the Nickel Creek hit “Somebody More Like You,” every came on stage for an epic close. A cover of a song by my least favorite band ever, The Grateful Dead. I wanted to be offended and annoyed by it, but it was such a gorgeous and soulful reading of “Brokedown Palace” that I was able to forget that it was by The Dead, and just allowed it to happen.
If you are ever in LA, Watkins Family Hour do a monthly set at Largo. Or, you can enjoy their podcast from the comfort of your own home!