A Gale Force Wind of Fresh Air in Asheville, NC
There was a point during last night’s Watkins Family Hour performance here in Asheville, NC, at the storied Grey Eagle, three verses into “Steal Your Heart Away,” when Sara Watkins threw her arm up and it was like that thing was a lever that let in the air. Suddenly the song and the set transformed into a wind storm of melodic precision, with emotions swirling and unleashed. Any idea that music is work was just out the window. These people onstage were all instinct, which cannot be explained.
Fiona Apple’s delivery of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” was downright dangerous, but nothing compared to the harmonies the Watkins siblings delivered to support her when, toward the end of the night, Apple liberated her closet hit “Mistake.” That was some haunted house shit, like stumbling into a dark secret you’re not sure you were supposed to discover.
During some other song (I lost track for a while, I was so caught-up in the incredible flow of it all) when Watkins finished singing a line, she called out her brother’s name. An eighth-beat later, Sean Watkins was ripping a guitar solo, harnessing the apparent lack of premeditation with which the rest of us might deliver a sneeze or a hiccup. That out-of-nowhere, didn’t-see-it-coming noise our body makes when various systems work together, to unleash something that can no longer be kept inside. Instinct. Survival.
Benmont Tench went there on the piano, clawing up the keys in a spirited solo that literally brought people to their feet mid-song, when he handed the tune back to the singer (Sara).
But for all the inimitable circus tricks and freakish melodic interludes, the exacting musicality and familial harmonic support, it really felt like family. I’m not writing anything new here. As the Watkins Family Hour has made its way around the country this summer in support of its self-titled debut (more than a decade after the “band” — if you can call it that — formed), writers have been homing in on the fact that, not only is this crew of players plucking and strumming and sawing their own new style of American roots music, but they’re also requiring us to reconsider what the word “family” means. After all, only two people on that stage share a bloodline, but the family culture of music-making made everyone a sibling or parent for the night. Audience included.
A small handful of songs before the end of the show, Sara Watkins told us that it wouldn’t be a show if Tench and Apple didn’t have their own moment to duet. Apple sat behind Tench on the piano bench, leaning against his back with the same kind of adoration and tongue-in-cheek humor with which a daughter might lean against her dad. But as the rest of the band walked offstage, she stood at the mic while he sat at the keys, and the two delivered a serious, heartbreaking rendition of Irving Berlin’s “All Alone.” Even Apple looked as though she needed a moment to recover from that one.
Sara did the same thing later, with “Hop High,” when it was time to unleash a fiddle solo. It started with a few slow, deliberate movements, like tiptoeing down a hallway, peering in through doors. Then, all of the sudden, she cracked a door open and a great wind came and blew it wide, bowling over Watkins and pretty much everyone else in the room. Fellow fiddler Rayna Gellert, who joined the Watkinses onstage for an old-time instrumental, later tweeted: “Nearly died from an overdose of goosebumps at the @WatkinsFamHour show tonight. #seriously #whoa.”
Seriously. Whoa. That pretty much sums it up.
Here’s a crowd of players whose musical instincts are so well-honed it’s dumbfounding. Throw Tom Brousseau — with his heart-grabbing falsetto and century-old blues tunes — into the mix, and … just shut up, now. It’s hard to believe there’s anything this group couldn’t do together. They will blow you over. They certainly did me.