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Review: A wonderful evening, courtesy of Sara Watkins

At Pasadena's Levitt Pavilion, Watkins and Co. deliver well-crafted fiddle, guitar and drum music that drew on the bluegrass tradition, old-time string bands and more.

July 09, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Times pop music critic
  • Fiddle player Sara Watkins performing at Pasadena's Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on Friday.
Fiddle player Sara Watkins performing at Pasadena's Levitt Pavilion… (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los…)

Those readers not living in Southern California but who are instead enduring one of the country’s hottest summers in recent memory might want to jump down a few paragraphs, past the part where Sara Watkins, fiddler, singer and songwriter, complained about the chilly Pasadena climate Friday evening and its effect on her violin’s tuning.

“The instruments are still adjusting to the cooler air,” she said by way of apology on the stage of the outdoor Levitt Pavilion as she plucked at her fiddle and tweaked its strings. In the cloudless sky above the band shell, Pasadena’s famed green parrots jumped from tree to tree, squawking. A mockingbird muttered in the distance.

Watkins and her band — brother Sean Watkins on guitar and bassist-percussionist Tyler Chester — were performing as part of Levitt Pavilion’s annual free summer concert series, which on Friday celebrated its 10th anniversary of bringing musicians from all over the world to perform during Pasadena sunsets.

Held at the city’s smallish Memorial Park, the performances draw hundreds who spread out in front of the band shell on blankets and low-backed chairs, eat hot dogs, drink lemonade, snuggle for warmth — and enjoy the intermingling of music, community and the natural world. (Mayor Bill Bogaard greeted the crowd by describing the anniversary festivities as “an historic and nostalgic evening.”)

Sara Watkins, 31, is best known as a founding member, with brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile, of Nickel Creek, the San Diego-born progressive bluegrassgroup whose work from 1989 to 2006 helped expand the boundaries of a music constantly bumping against tradition and stasis. The trio, formed as a quartet when Sara was 8 and Sean was 12, has been inactive since 2006, during which time the individual members have thrived — Thile with the Punch Brothersand Sean with Fiction Family (which also features Chester on bass), and both Sean and Sara in a supergroup called Works Progress Administration with other notable players including Tom Pettypianist Benmont Tench and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas.

Sara, though, has proved exceedingly versatile, having become not only an acclaimed solo artist but also an occasional stand-in for Garrison Keilloron his “Prairie Home Companion” radio show and the co-host with Sean of a monthly musical salon at Largo in West Hollywood called the Watkins Family Hour. She also has been a touring member of indie rock band the Decemberists and guested on John Mayer’s recent album, “Born and Raised.” She clogs to boot, as evidenced by the foot-stomped echoes dotting her new song “You and Me.”

Touring in support of her excellent new album on Nonesuch Records, “Sun Midnight Sun,” Sara and her trio on Friday offered 75 minutes of well-crafted, honest fiddle, guitar and drum music that drew not only on the bluegrass tradition but also hinted at old-time string band tunes, tossed in a touch of Texas swing, a little dose of rock and a certain Watkins family confidence that finds sustenance in adventure.

At one point, Watkins described her style as Southern California bluegrass, and before introducing the instrumental “G Tune” accurately re-dubbed it “sort-of bluegrass music.” Within that “sort-of” lay myriad emotions, from the funereal “Dig a Hole in the Meadow” to the redemptive spiritual “River of Jordan,” each thick with musical subtext. Watkins carried the crowd through a slow waltz on Jon Brion’s “Same Mistakes,” a languid love song about messes made: “The line is thin between a selfish act, and the things you do to keep yourself intact,” she sang before adding, dryly, “I could name a few.”

Watkins displayed her taste during the many covers she performed, including the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love” (a duet that on her new album features Fiona Apple), Willie Nelson’s “I’m a Memory,” Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” and Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” which Nickel Creek interpreted on its 2005 album, “Why Should the Fire Die?”

And in a wonderful take on riverboat pilot/fiddle genius John Hartford’s “A Long Hot Summer Day,” a song about the pros and cons of the riverboat life, she described sweat-stained days working the Illinois River, her hand dragging her bow across the fiddle to create a searing melody.

As the moon rose, the parrots quieted and bats started darting across the sky, the singer noted the little joys that accompany such work: “Last night, we had pork chops for dinner, today will be a chicken consomme,” she sang as the crowd on the well-trimmed Pasadena lawn clapped along, the temperature dropping with the sun, “a fruit jar full of iced tea on a long hot summer day.”


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