Often collaborations of wildly talented people fall short of the pieces, or force an outcome that feels designed to an end. For the Watkins Family Hour, what began as friends jamming for the sake of it became a monthly residence at Los Angeles’ trendy music hub Largo. Before long the ragtag group, anchored by Nickel Creek’s Sarah and Sean Watkins, was attracting guests like Jackson Browne, Dawes and Fiona Apple.
It is the ease of the musicianship, the smearing of genres into a warm toasty acoustic home, that bewitches artists of that caliber. It also suggests in a world of rigid formats and genres, tribes and movements, a repertoire of the Grateful Dead (“Brokedown Palace”), Lee Ving (“King of 12 Oz. Bottles”), Fleetwood Mac (“Steal Your Heart Away”), and Skeeter Davis (“Where I Ought To Be”) covers can be wholly satisfying without being disjointedly eclectic.
From the breezy take on Robert Earl Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again,” the playing is loose, but focused, the lyrics’ sense of relief palpable in Sara’s sunny alto, which crests over the words with a genuine enjoyment as her fiddle darts in and out of the mix.
Beyond the Watkins sibs, the collective includes Apple, Lone Justice alum Don Heffington on drums, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keyboard, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz on guitars, and Soul Coughing’s Sebastian Steinberg on bass. Whether it’s Tench’s old-time piano and jaunty vocal on “Prescription for the Blues,” Steinberg’s elegiac doom on George Jones’ classic “She Thinks I Still Care” or Sean Watkins’ pensive twinge on Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone,” the WFH tries on moods and feelings with a seamlessness that draws listeners in.
Closing with “Brokedown Palace,” the album’s universality is foregone conclusion. Good is good. Artistry can’t be faked. Playing twines around the writers’ and singers’ intention adding nuance and dimension. That such a simple record, short on frills and long on naked aesthetic, offers such impact in a world of machined pop and beat-driven urban music speaks volumes for the power of stripping things back, then letting the talent shine.