In addition to their music, what makes this gathering so special is the humanity, connection, joy, and presence The Watkins Family exudes.
The spirit in the room feels festive and light. It’s a gathering of good friends, who’ve come together to celebrate and share stories, songs and laughter. The dynamic interaction between those on stage is shared with all in attendance. The musicians have a long history with each other, but they make sure to let the audience in on their inside jokes. With their presence and openness, The Watkins Family unites us all.
Their music carries a similar inclusive, dynamic, and evolving energy. Thanks to the tone The Watkins Family sets and Largo‘s no-cell-phone policy, it is a completely immersive experience. You can get lost in the sound, hear how each note plays off the other, and the way the instruments and voices work together, each elevating the other. Rather than simply play their part, the musicians listen to and accompany each other. It is a live music experience in the purest sense. Created in front of you, the songs feel different each time they’re played. The Watkins Family Hour is a monthly residency that has spanned more than a decade, yet the show is still refreshing, unique, and anticipation for the next one never wanes.
The dynamic atmosphere is balanced with a sense of history and tradition. Whether you’re attending your first Watkins Family Hour show or your thirty-first, it feels as though you’ve been there since the beginning. The Watkins Family transports you to another time and place, where all there is to do is enjoy music and our time together.
There are no computers, fog machines, nor fancy lighting rigs. You may feel like you’ve been invited to a family gathering at one of their homes, especially when Sean and Sara sing while standing beneath a homemade snow machine, getting doused by white flakes. Last night, The Watkins Family reminded us not to take things too seriously and to embrace and express our childlike spirit. With the snow machine and humorous elves, they also gave us the gift of another inside joke and “you had to be there” moment.
There’s music, comedy, and last night, there was snow. You can’t Auto-Tune this and it won’t translate in virtual reality. The Watkins take you on a journey which, like life, is ever-changing and more fun to navigate with music, a sense of humor, and surrounded by family and good friends.
“If you were here ten years ago, you were probably eating honey chicken” may sound like an odd intro, but it was the perfect statement to kick off The Watkins Family Hour 10-Year Anniversary show at Largo.
Those of us who have been attending the Watkins Family shows for ten years (or more) remember the honey chicken tradition well. The best way to ensure getting into a show at the old Largo location on Fairfax was to reserve a table. There was a $15 per person food minimum and the honey chicken was a crowd favorite.
The process seems so analog now. You’d dial into an answering machine and leave a message with your name, phone number, and the show you’d like to see. You then waited by the phone for the next two to three days, hoping you weren’t too late, that there were still tables available. If you were lucky, you’d receive a confirmation call from Largo to lock in your reservation. Thanks to technology, the process has since been updated, but I still feel that lucky each time I experience a show at Largo.
With the venue’s move from Fairfax to La Cienega, went the kitchen, the honey chicken, and the sound of knives and forks clanking against plates during the show. It was all part of the experience and core to the foundation of Largo that remains today – a place like no other.
As I’ve written previously, The Watkins Family Hour is one of my favorite ways to spend a night in Los Angeles. I was in Africa during much of December, without phone or internet, gazing into the eyes of lions, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, and leopards. The first thing I did when I returned home – prior to unpacking, calling friends and family, and eating – was check Largo’s website for a January Watkins show. The January 11th 10-year anniversary show was indeed listed and, like the old days, I was grateful it wasn’t too late to get a ticket.
The collaborative and uplifting spirt of The Watkins Family Hour is undeniable. Each show feels like a celebration of music and friendship. In this case, the friendships were further highlighted, as the Watkins reminisced about the past 10 years, sharing stories each time a special guest took the stage.
After Fiona Apple joined The Watkins for an extraordinary performance of “You’re The One I Love”, she and Sara laughed, remembering the intensity of recording the song. They explained that they stared into each other’s eyes the entire time they sang the song, take after take. “Then… I don’t know what happened. It was so intense!” Fiona exclaimed.
“I think we eventually erupted in laughter,” Sara responded.
“Yeah, because it was so intense – it was funny,” Fiona added.
“It’s a funny song,” Sara joked.
The Watkins Family Hour is essentially a show down between the songs and the moments between songs. Hearing the music, watching the band – each member lost in his own world, yet connected and communicating with the others – is magical. I find myself filled with gratitude, so happy to be there, lost in time. Then, between songs, another kind of magic happens. The spontaneous conversations, the humor that’s delivered as if you’re in on the inside joke, the stories shared. . . No longer are you in a theatre. You’ve been transported to the Watkins’ living room.
Tonight, we also experienced magic in the traditional sense of the word. Comedian and magician, Derek Hughes, made a guest appearance and “a commitment to our astonishment” as he performed numerous mind-blowing card tricks. I’m happy I drank a bottle of sake prior to this show or my mind would have been reeling, trying to figure out the tricks. Instead, I was simultaneously laughing and “astonished”, non-stop, throughout the show.
When Glen Phillips joined The Watkins on stage, Sean told a story about the first time he and Glen connected. Sean wrote Glen a note and sent him some songs. Glen finished the story, explaining how – upon hearing their songs – he invited Sean and Sara to play with him at Largo. As he spoke, Glen appeared to be overcome with awe. Everyone on stage looked like they couldn’t believe they were playing with each of the others, as if it were all a dream.
Fiona joined Sara and Sean for a few more songs, allowing us to witness the reunion of an exceptionally talented, fun, playful, and supportive family. If you haven’t seen Fiona sing “Jolene” with The Watkins, consider adding it to your bucket list. The spirit of friendship, artistry, happiness, musicianship, trust, respect, and love, fills the room as they sing. It’s spectacular. The Watkins Family Hour isn’t so much a “show” as it is a dynamic expression of music and life, in the purest sense.
Years ago, at The Fairfax venue, you’d often hear Flanny make a request from a back corner of the room. It was a reminder of how much Flanny loves music and the musicians who play Largo. His respect for and appreciation of musicians, and those who share that respect and appreciation, was – and still is – carried throughout everything that happens at Largo. To this day, Largo is the epitome of what can be when people operate with unwavering integrity and intention. “This one’s at the request of Flanny,” Sara said, introducing the next song.
When The Watkins Family Hour concluded in the theatre, a line formed down the block, outside The Little Room for another intimate performance. The Little Room is reminiscent of the Fairfax days – tables and chairs, a bar at the back of the room, and the shouts of audience requests. After a few songs and some more astonishing magic, the evening came to an end, feeling much like it did at the very beginning.
A few people were at a loss for words as they expressed their gratitude to Sean, Sara, and the band, after the show. Even as I write this now, it is challenging to articulate what a truly “astonishing” experience The Watkins Family Hour is.
Friday night was a celebration of The Watkins Family, which includes enduring friendships, the home known as Largo, and an audience that can’t get enough.
Watkins Family Hour is the perfect show leading up to the holidays. With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, Sean and Sara Watkins’ sheer talent, along with a healthy dose of murder ballads are welcome reminders of how blessed we are to be alive.
Once a month, for a decade now, The Watkins have been bringing their guitars, fiddles, and friends to Largo for what has long been one of my favorite shows in LA.
They often share the stage with some other people you may recognize, including Fiona Apple, Dawes, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, and John C Reilly. Yet, Sean and Sara are the foundation of the show and even if no on else were to join them on stage, they’d still have one of the best shows in town.
To play the way these siblings do requires that they actually listen to each other, constantly. It’s as if the universe has simultaneously presented them with a brilliant gift and ever-present joke – you’ll make great music together, but you have to get along. Perhaps that’s why the only detectable sibling rivalry seems to stem from their sense of humor. The murder ballads are balanced by Sean and Sara one-upping each other with witty observations. Their snarky sense of humor showdowns are a testament to how much they respect each other, as family, as musicians, as friends. Eventually, one of them acquiesces, “Ok, that was good!” and they jump into the next song.
The Watkins Family band is unparalleled: Benmont Tench on piano, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, Don Heffington on drums, and Greg Leisz on steel pedal guitar. It’s worth attending this show monthly, for the musicianship and camaraderie alone. Throw in a lot of laughs, some special guests, frequent surprises (dancing bears and such), and the perfect venue, The Watkins Family Hour is an exceptionally worthwhile way to spend an evening.
Last night’s show was no exception. Although I attend The Watkins Family Hour monthly, I’m always moved – as if I’m experiencing it for the first time – by how uplifting The Watkins’ shows are. The shows vary significantly from month to month, but some things are consistent: beautiful voices, blended with remarkable musicianship and laughter.
The next Watkins Family Hour takes place on December 19th at Largo. Sadly, it’s the one show this year I have to miss. Luckily for you, that means there will be a couple extra tickets available. I highly recommend you get tickets in advance and round out 2012 with what is sure to be an amazing and memorable evening.
For those of you not in LA – and those of you in LA who would like to re-live some of the shows – there are 7 free podcasts of The Watkins Family Hour at iTunes. Episode 7, recorded on an iPhone due to a power outage, is the show I wrote about here. It remains among my favorite lifetime experiences to date.
Thank you for another wonderful year, Watkins Family. I’m still campaigning to have a “Season Tickets” package available for purchase.
Where do I begin? If I start at the beginning, at our old stomping grounds on Fairfax, they’ll know how old we are.
If I attempt to talk about the extraordinary shows. . . Neil Finn. . . Fiona Apple. . . Aimee Mann. . . Jon Brion every Friday night. . . I won’t be able to name them all. I’d forget to mention someone who should never be forgotten.
Speaking of someone who can never be forgotten, I would like to bring up Elliott Smith. I used to watch him transform on your stage. He may not have wanted to perform, but you had a gentle way of reminding him how much he needed to. It went from not being sure whether he’d get on stage to being hopeful that it may not come to an end. Those were special nights. And, in addition to Elliott Smith, you offered us the space to experience the deep friendship between Elliott Smith and Jon Brion. It seemed as if they felt, on some level, that they were the only ones who understood each other. Jon had a way of “being” with Elliott that seemed to put him at ease, or at least make him feel significantly better. And Elliott had a way of sparking a look of pure admiration and awe on Jon’s face when he’d sing “Say Yes” with his eyes closed. This kind of experience can’t happen everywhere. The moments that “happen” at Largo happen because you’ve created, and consistently provide, the space and tone that are required for them to occur.
We’ve had a long history, you and me. And I only have good memories. But tonight, you outdid yourself. I was having dinner before the show at La Cienega Sushi, across the street. They’re really nice people and the sushi is great. They’re next door to the strip club and they have a sushi roll called “Spicy TT.” I fucking love that place.
Anyway, I was having sushi (and maybe some sake) and the power went out. The blackout spanned a couple blocks. There was an awkward pause as everyone waited to see whether the lights would come back on. When it became clear the power wasn’t going to come back on, the first thing each person in the restaurant said was some version of, “but. . . The Watkins Family. . . at Largo. . . oh no”
I did my best to assure everyone that the show would go on, without power. They humored me, hoping for a self-fulfilling prophecy, but also wondering just how much sake I had drank. They were convinced enough to play Frogger across an unlit La Cienega Boulevard, to see if you’d do it. They wanted you to pull it off, but it was hard for some to imagine.
You reminded them, and all of us: music pre-dates electricity.
You are one place that can confidently continue a show without electricity. The musicians who play at Largo can actually play instruments and sing. Your acoustics are great. You look beautiful in candlelight.
I do owe you an apology though. I’m sorry for using that photo at the top of this letter, without permission. . . but I know how you feel about cameras, so I’ve never taken a picture of you. Truth be told, you are the only place I’ve never felt compelled to break a “rule.” No cell phones. No cameras. No electronics. No talking. Do you have any idea how much I despise the concept “no”? No, you wouldn’t because you’ve convinced me to agree with “no” at Largo.
I remember a time, at the ol’ Fairfax home. . . I was sitting at one of the tall bar tables, along the side of the room. “Two drink minimum” – as if that’s some kind of challenge we might not enjoy. There were some friends quietly talking at the table behind me. It happened from time to time throughout the show, but I was immersed in the music nonetheless. “Are they bothering you?” the voice of Flanagan came in from behind. That’s the thing about you, Largo, and Flanagan – you don’t have rules just for the sake of having rules. Flanagan wasn’t going to kick them out for an occasional whisper during the show. He just wanted to make sure they weren’t interfering with anyone else’s experience. There’s a difference between “rules” and “respect”. Largo is about respect.
I watched people enter your courtyard and bar this evening, somewhat uncertain. Their steps were cautious. They were quiet, with frequent bursts of giggles, sounds reminiscent of a childhood sleepover. But, as time went on, they realized you were serious. The show tonight would happen, by candlelight, and they’d always remember it. The volume in the bar increased by 10 decibels. People ordered drinks and celebrated. Inside the theatre, David Garza was playing piano as people enthusiastically absorbed every ounce of candlelight and music you shared with us.
Whose idea was it to invite John C. Reilly tonight? That Watkins Family’s?
It was a really good idea.
When Fiona Apple walked on stage tonight, she scanned the room, with a “yep, this is right” smile. “Isn’t this amazing?” Sara Watkins asked Fiona. “Although, it’s kind of weird to be able to see everyone out there,” Sara continued, alluding to the irony that the musicians could see the audience better without electricity than with it.
“Yeah, I was thinking about that. . . ” Fiona replied, standing in the dark alongside her family of brilliant musician friends. “But I was also thinking – and you guys don’t know this,” she said as an aside to those of us in the audience. “This is actually what it’s like when we hang out. It’s just like this.” “Welcome to our living room,” Sean Watkins chimed in.
Please tell Fiona that we do know. “It’s like being a fly on the wall” I quoted when I wrote about one of Fiona Apple’s previous shows at Largo. Whether the lights are dimmed or the power’s out completely, there’s a feeling Fiona, The Watkins Family, and their extended family create that makes you feel like you’ve been invited to the dinner party. We get to sit there and experience what happens as their talents, playfulness, humor, and sounds intertwine.
I also greatly appreciated the “bear” theme tonight. It made me feel as if you and your kind musician friends had been reading My Travel Tales and knew how important bears are to me. Everyone sang a bear song. There was that teddy bear, holding things down, stage left. . . Nick Kroll’s hysterical bear story. . . We all loved the dancing bear that carried Fiona Apple off stage and then returned a few numbers later to dance with John C. Reilly. As we individually solved the puzzle of who was in the bear suit on each occasion, it felt akin to the moment you first realized what’s going on in The Sixth Sense.
Tonight we sat with you in candlelight. The musicians performed without mics nor amps. Flanagan and Michael lit our way with flashlights if we needed to get up during the show. The music was exceptional as it always is at Largo. Each of us who was there tonight will “remember that time when. . . ”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, could you please light up your cell phones. Help each other out of here” Michael suggested as we attempted to file out of the theatre in darkness. Yep, that happened. We were instructed to use our cell phones at Largo. *That* tells you what a special night it was.
If you listen closely, there are multiple varying tones to applause: polite, obligatory, appreciative, supportive, congratulatory and many more. The sound of applause generates momentum and creates a feeling. Among the most special experiences is when audience applause sets the tone and spirit of a show, in contrast to coming after the events and moments of a show.
When John Paul White and Joy Williams (The Civil Wars) took the stage at The Wiltern, the applause led the show. It lasted a while. It was the sound of great triumph; the sound of victory. I don’t think I’ve experienced that specific tone of applause, in person, prior to this show. I imagine it’s heard during a parade when the hometown athlete brings home an Olympic gold medal. It may be similar to the sound of applause during the celebration of a victorious political campaign.
The applause of the crowd was amplified – we were applauding The Civil Wars, but we were also applauding ourselves. The Civil Wars are “our” band. There weren’t any radio stations, TV talk shows, publicity stunts, or million dollar marketing spends telling us we should listen to The Civil Wars. We discovered them and we told our friends. We purchase their music and sell out their live shows because we support true talent. The Civil Wars sold 100,000 records in 4 months, without a major label. The fans get credit for helping The Civil Wars succeed because there were only 3 factors in this “formula”: The Civil Wars, their music, and the fans. We did it. We “voted” for talent. And we won.
In Los Angeles, we’ve purchased tickets to The Civil Wars’ sold out shows at The Hotel Cafe (capacity: 165), Largo (capacity: 280), The El Rey (capacity: 700) and now The Wiltern (capacity: 2,300). We’ll follow them to The Greek (capacity: 5,900) and The Hollywood Bowl (capacity: 18,000). We’ll set up the “Who The Fuck Are The Civil Wars?!” website when they win their first Grammy. We’re proud of The Civil Wars. This is the music we’re choosing. These are the people we want to succeed. That is the sound of the applause that preceded The Civil Wars’ show at The Wiltern.
After the applause, the celebration, the fuck yeahs and the thank yous, the show began and, in contrast to the sound of uproarious applause, the crowd was silent. The music and voices of John Paul White and Joy Williams then carried us from one victory to the next, song after song, we celebrated The Civil Wars.
[Updated December 2, 2011]
The Civil Wars have been nominated for 2 Grammys this year: “Best Country Duo/Group Performance” and “Best Folk Album”. Here’s their interview with The Grammys upon learning the news:
“I didn’t want it to end. I could have watched her for another 5 hours”
“It’s like being a fly on the wall”
“I’ve been to thousands of concerts in my lifetime and that was definitely among my Top 10”
“I’m going to need therapy to overcome this! I don’t know if I can ever feel this good again!”
The sounds of people expressing their appreciation as they filed out of the beautiful venue that is Largo echoed the voices in my head. Three of the top 5 shows I’ve seen this year have been Fiona Apple playing at Largo, on three different occasions.
As I experienced Fiona’s brilliant performance again tonight, I began to wonder: “Maybe those old-school record label execs are smarter than we’re giving them credit for – maybe they’re happy when Fiona Apple keeps a low profile, so that she doesn’t raise the bar beyond their reach.” That would be an intelligent strategy because Fiona Apple truly does just that.
Not only is her voice impeccable, her presence engaging, and her performance magnificent, she also seems to have a visible, direct connection to the universe. Apple is tuned-in to the environment, the present moment, the surrounding sounds and feelings. Throughout the show, Fiona seemed to be precisely responding to silent prayers of audience requests, having telepathic conversations with the musicians on stage, answering unspoken questions, and connecting with everyone individually, on a unique and profound level. Calling it a “performance” does a great disservice as well because that insinuates it’s “put on.” As it happens, Fiona Apple doesn’t “put on” a performance. She is the song. They’re inseparable beings.
There’s something about Fiona Apple’s perspective, the way she engages with everyone and everything, that shows you the undeniable connection between all beings. As the drum she played was carefully carried off-stage, Fiona gently placed the drumsticks on the head of the drum, smiled, and gave them a little pat. She didn’t say “thank you,” but that’s what was expressed. Little distinction is made between sentient and non-sentient beings. The common denominator is vibration: the language of music.
I know there’s more you want to know – all those questions you’ve had all these years, but this is all you need to know.
I dare you to see Fiona Apple at Largo. It will spoil you.