Encountering Geraint Watkins is like being tased. Although a Watkins dose is low-voltage enough so it doesn’t hurt, it makes your whole body tingle; you shake and tremble, not quite knowing what to do about the whole experience. A few years back, the audience that had gathered at Raleigh’s Pour House for the featured act, Tres Chicas, was mesmerized by the opening act, a shape-shifting shaman conjuring up an unholy alliance of Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart sharing a body with Leonard Cohen, with a taste of Bob Wills impersonating Chuck Berry thrown in just for giggles.
Watkins seemed surprised at the standing ovation that called him back to the stage, saying afterward that he had been opening for Nick Lowe and wasn’t used to encores.
But Watkins didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. For over three decades, the accordionist/pianist/guitarist has done session work and played live with artists including Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, and Mark Knopfler as well as Lowe, for whom he contributed piano and organ on three albums, The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, and The Convincer.
On his own, Watkins wanders all over the musical landscape, shucking personas like dirty shirts. 2004’s Dial W For Watkins, released on Yep Roc, was a weird and wonderful masterpiece that had Watkins back-woodsin’ it like Ry Cooder on “Turn That Chicken Down” and crooning like a bloodthirsty Leonard Cohen on “Bring Me The Head of My So-Called Lover.”
Watkins is just as footloose on Rush of Blood, galloping along spaghetti-western style on the title cut, sneaking in some violins to cut the dust.
But the cowboy is long gone on “Hold Back,” ’50s style rockabilly with Watkins as a bloozy crooner, which would be cool enough by itself, but his soulful duet with Little George Sueref guarantees this one a spot in swamp pop heaven.
But don’t worry about getting locked in a groove. Watkins rides out of the swamp, strapping on Johnny Cash for “In The Middle of the Night,” then riding out into the desert to commiserate with his Van Morrison persona before relinquishing the reins back to Johnny to take it home.
“Heaven Only Knows” gets sneakier and snakier as it unwinds, starting off with just acoustic guitar backing Watkins’ mellifluous vocal, then tensing up as a percussive pulse pushes up from the bottom. Then a clarinet drifts in to wail softly before Watkins lays in a sprinkling of soulful piano flavoring to polish it off.
“On the Inside” can’t decide whether it’s soul, country, R&B, or blues. But with the glorious vocal treatment Watkins lays on top, who cares? Just soak it up and grin.
The bluesy zydeco of “Reason to Live” recalls Watkins’ days with the Balham Alligators, a zydeco/Cajun band he played accordion and keyboards with for 15 years in London.
Watkins is kind of hard to find, but well worth the journey, a perfect traveling companion for all your trips. But beware: Once he gets in your vehicle, you won’t want to let him out.