Sara Watkins & Mikaela Davis at The Aladdin Theater, Portland, Oregon, 9/16/16
If you were to Weird Science the prototype for a technically perfect, ethereal female singer, you’d come up with someone like Mikaela Davis. Petite, young and blonde, she’s a harpist with a high, dreamy, limber voice who boasts an affinity for Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens. Her music is pure and relaxing, the sonic equivalent of a spa day chased by a water-bong rip of some really primo weed.
Davis plays on Sara Watkins’ new album, Young in All the Wrong Ways, and opened for the Nickel Creek alum last night at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. Like Davis, Watkins is a virtuosic string player—her main instrument being the fiddle—with a precocious pedigree, and has a voice that will often make you shake your head and shoulders and smile. But whereas Davis achieves such vocal peaks with a seemingly effortless grace, Watkins’ journey can be bumpy and tortured—and ultimately more impactful.
Backed by an electric guitarist and a one-man rhythm section who played both drums and bass (not in the EDM sense of the term, rest assured), a bespectacled Watkins strode onto the Aladdin’s stage at 9 p.m. last night, wearing a sleeveless dress which hugged her curves and white clogs which hammered the hardwood whenever she’d dismiss her band for a tune or two. Without so much as picking a note, she immediately launched into an a cappella version of The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside,” looping in and out of falsetto as she strained to reach the highest notes. The song wasn’t in Watkins’ wheelhouse vocally, but it was plainly evident that she loved singing it. And when you can tell someone loves something, it tends to obscure whatever rough edges there are. (Watkins’ lead vocal on “Your Bright Baby Blues” from a recent Jackson Browne tribute album was far and away the best thing about that star-studded compilation; her passion for great music is as infectious as it comes.)
Watkins and her band followed with the sweet toe-tapper “You & Me,” followed by “Say So” and the western swing of “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free.” She then played her new album’s title track, an unabashed rocker that occasionally caused her to gyrate like a junior-level Joe Cocker as she wailed away. Showing her range as her bandmates took a powder, she invited the crowd to sing along with her on the chorus of John Hartford’s Illinois River folkie “Long Hot Summer Days,” and had them perform the whistling part on “Anthony.” She then covered the empowering, doo-woppy Linda Ronstadt hit “Different Drum,” with her band reemerging midway through.
She played plenty of her own tunes—“One Last Time,” “Too Much,” “Like New Year’s Day,” “Move Me,” and “Tenderhearted” among them—to round out her tight, hour-and-fifteen-minute set, but it was her cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” which elicited the warmest response from the crowd. Portland is a river town with no shortage of hippies; “listen to the river, sing sweet songs” could be an apt musical mantra for the city, were it ever to adopt one.