Geraint Watkins – Pure pub for now, people
As the keyboardist for Nick Lowe’s Impossible Birds and as the opening act on Lowe’s recent swing through the United States, Geraint Watkins has made a strong musical impression. Yet the Welsh native recognizes his name is easy to forget, and that many who remember it mispronounce the “g” soft as in “Gerald” (where it should be hard like “get”). Close readers of liner credits will note that his new Dial ‘W’ For Watkins CD lists a co-producer with the suspiciously sound-alike name of Warent Atkins.
“He’s this mysterious fellow who keeps following me around,” says the genial Watkins with a laugh. “No, I was playing in Sweden once, and that’s how I saw my name spelled. I rather liked it. We might have the Warent Atkins Band one of these days.”
In the meantime, his belated Stateside solo debut, released in August on Yep Roc, provides an impressive calling card for the 53-year-old veteran. Watkins’ British discography spans dozens of releases, from a 1979 debut credited to Geraint Watkins & the Dominators through fifteen years of albums with what he describes as his “punk Cajun” band, the Balham Alligators. The demand for his sideman services extends from Lowe and Dave Edmunds to Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler.
“He’s a really wonderful, intuitive musician,” says Lowe. “Some people think he’s just a boogie-woogie guy, but he’s so much more than that. He’s got a jazz player’s attitude toward music — he’s all feel. I’ve been lucky enough to play with lots and lots of musicians, some of them extremely well-known. Without mentioning any names of course, I wouldn’t walk across the road to see them if Watkins was an alternative choice.”
Asked to categorize his musicianship, Watkins says, “I’m an R&B guy, I suppose you’d say. When I first heard my brother’s Fats Domino and Little Richard records when I was 9 or 10, that was it for me. That was all I listened to. For all I knew about the American south, those guys could have been from Mars.”
A droll, self-deprecating bloke who might seem more comfortable downing pints at the bar than sweating under the spotlight, Watkins could be considered the quintessence of “pub rock.” This was the term applied a quarter-century ago to British musicians steeped in rootsy Americana who eschewed the scale and spectacle of arena rock. Most of those tagged with the label disavowed its connotations of minor-league, not-ready-for-prime-time artistry. Yet the song craftsmanship, solid musicianship and playful spirit of Watkins recalls the glory days of Brinsley Schwarz (Lowe’s breakthrough band), Ian Dury and Mickey Jupp.
Not that his album is an exercise in nostalgia. While surveying a musical landscape that extends from the deep soul of “Blessed With Happiness” to the bittersweet balladry of “Only A Rose” to the breezy swing of “Go West”, Watkins employs such modern effects as tape loops and samples. While his musicianship is steeped in the influence of Louisiana and Memphis, the album’s centerpiece is a rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes And Villains” as filtered through the scat and jive of Louis Prima.
“I was leafing through a songbook and I came upon it,” he explains of the experimental opus from the legendary Smile sessions. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is really epic.’ I’d never really listened to the lyrics before, and there’s kind of a swing feel even to the Beach Boys recording. When we play it, some people even think that I wrote it. But they’re younger, though.”
Watkins’ album also reflects the influence of playing with labelmate Lowe. On both artists’ recent work, the arrangements are minimal, the material is mature, and the atmospherics suggest a sophisticated brand of mood music. While standout originals such as “Two Rocks” and “Soldier Of Love” show deep musical roots, they sound more like testaments of faith than genre exercises.
As Watkins continues to balance sideman work with his solo career, he takes pleasure in each. “They’re satisfying in different ways,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m onstage and listening to myself sing, I think, ‘What are you doing up here? You can’t sing like Ray Charles.’ And playing with someone like Nick Lowe or Van Morrison, where you just lose yourself in the music and get so wrapped up in it, is such a satisfying experience.”
Opening for Lowe recently at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (no, Lowe isn’t a folk singer, but, then again, the Old Town School is no longer in Old Town), Watkins interspersed selections from the new release with highlights from its British-only predecessor, Watkins Bold As Love, and revivals of standards from “At Last” to “Mystery Train”. After the transcendently enigmatic “Soldier Of Love”, he suggested to the crowd, “If anybody knows what that song’s about, please let me know.”
“When you write a song like that, there’s a magic that you can’t really analyze,” he says.
You may not know precisely what it means. But you know exactly how it feels.