Works Progress Administration Tour Kicks Off in Columbia, SC
September 16, 2009
The White Mule, Columbia SC
With their brand spanking new album only a day old, the first official tour of the Works Progress Administration promised to be something special, and it lived up to its billing as a meeting of talent from three different directions. The touring unit of the WPA consists of fiddler/singer Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett), guitarist/singer Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), and guitarist/singer Glen Phillips (Toad The Wet Sprocket), along with hired guns on drums and bass (introduced at one point as Jerry and Tyler, no last names). If you’re unfamiliar with the genesis of this Americana supergroup, check out my recent interview with Bulla here.
The WPA album is a genial slice of mostly midtempo acoustic-leaning rock anchored but not dominated by the voice and songs of Phillips. His “You Will Always Have My Love” opens the disc, and it opened the show with an upbeat flourish in front of a large crowd in the tiny space of the White Mule, an underground acoustic music venue in Columbia, South Carolina.
While the vast majority of those in attendance were probably most familiar with Phillips and Watkins, the show-stealer was undoubtedly Bulla, whose remarkable voice came as a pleasant surprise to those mostly used to watching him dole out the fiddle runs in Lyle Lovett’s band. “Rise Up” was especially moving, with all three vocalists harmonizing on the slow, haunting ballad.
Besides the bulk of the tunes from the new album, the principals each took a turn or two to showcase a little of what they do outside of this group. Phillips threw a couple of Toad bones to the expectant crowd, including “Ocean,” while Watkins, after offering an introduction about sad and dark bluegrass songs that he learned with Nickel Creek, proceeded to whip out a humorous song about lesbians from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer fame. Bulla got the opportunity to show off his fiddle chops the most on “I Feel The Blues Movin’ In,” which he noted has been done by many including Del McCoury, his favorite version. Add in a stray Radiohead cover and a song from the Friction Family album Watkins did with John Foreman of Switchfoot, and the set was bursting with great music.
The camaraderie and friendship of Bulla, Watkins, and Phillips was evident throughout the night as they took turns on lead vocals, played off each other musically, and generally acted quite pleased to be there. Far from a star-studded vehicle, the WPA really does seem like a community effort of like-minded musicians—during one of the final songs as Watkins forcefully strummed his guitar, his pick slipped from his fingers; Phillips, looking over and seeing the problem, fished a replacement from his own pocket and passed it over, with Watkins not missing a lick. A small gesture, to be sure, but a nice metaphor for the overall sense that like the public organization that gave them their name, this is more a community than a band.
This was the start of a 30-date run, check www.wpamusic.com for additional dates.