Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sara Watkins - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 11th November 2016

A couple of years ago Jason Ringenberg paid tribute to those in the teaching profession during one of his UK gigs. This evening Sara Watkins trumped that by dedicating ‘Tenderhearted’ to teachers, social workers and volunteers before delivering a song epitomising the way she uses her talent to make meaningful music. This extraordinary ability to mix vocal skill, song writing expertise and multi-instrumental virtuosity is reaping rewards in this phase of her career as a flourishing solo artist. Solo was the word tonight as any misguided assumption that she would tour the new album in some kind of band format was laid to rest as she pulled off the one woman show with a stunning performance.

You only had to hear the lead track from the new album to grasp that this was a breakout release. Breakthrough wouldn’t be the right word for a highly respected artist at the top of her game for a long time whether as a fledgling member of iconic roots revival pioneers Nickel Creek, part of the Watkins Family Hour or just plain Sara Watkins – the solo performer. Yet there was something radically effective about the spirit of ‘Move Me’, even in tonight’s playing which lacked the full force of the band version while never falling short on sentiment. Sara herself described the album as the result of personal transition and she has to be congratulated on making YOUNG IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS one of my favourite albums of 2016.

The key to the success of this Oxford show, once again brought to us by the popular Empty Rooms Promo, was the way Sara utilised the diversity of her four chosen instruments. The trademark fabulous fiddle playing was on full show with a variety of bow and picking styles utilising every inch of the majestic wand. Early in the set she treated the audience to the Swedish inspired fiddle tune ‘Jefferson’ which appeared on her debut solo album and instantly wowed a well-attended seated gathering. While an even use of acoustic guitar and ukulele spread the effect of the accompanying sound, it was the pure nostalgia she extracted from her Gibson 140 which rivalled the fiddle for the show’s stand out musical moments.

Sara’s eighty minutes in the spotlight saw her feature material from a range of sources and time period. Harking back to her Nickel Creek days, the crowd were invited to join in on the whistling part of ‘Anthony’. In recognising some of the duo work she has done with brother Sean, and a love for Jackson Browne, a version of ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’ was supremely delivered and thoroughly enjoyed. This was one of three covers chosen which hasn’t appeared on a Sara album alongside ‘Young Man in America’, a tribute to her friend and peer Anais Mitchell, and a version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Early in the Morning’ in the encore slot. At this point she did refer to ailments making her voice a little ragged, but any effect was barely noticed in a show which continually sparkled right from the opening track ‘Too Much’.

The new album was heartily featured throughout with Sara executing the vocal range in the title track impressively. Instant popular songs from the record were at the core of the set list including ‘One Last Time’, ‘Say So’ and ‘Like New Year’s Day’. Unfortunately ‘The Truth Won’t Set Us Free’ didn’t make the cut, but maybe next time. From her eponymous debut solo album we were treated to a sublime version of the John Hartford song ‘Long Hot Summer Days’, complete with fine fiddle and a rousing chorus, while from its subsequent follow up record ‘You and Me’ cemented itself as one of the strongest songs in Sara’s back catalogue.

Sara herself was in appreciative, spritely and humble spirit throughout the show. Eager to connect with the audience, she shared some insight and inspiration including her early fiddling days in Southern California and the recent touring association with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz as part of the’ I’m With Her’ project. During those shows which toured the UK, we had a glimpse of Sara’s talent in collaboration, but it was a welcome experience to enjoy the full repertoire in the solo spotlight.

The support for the evening came from Isle of Wight based singer-songwriter Claydon Connor. With a style heavily influenced by the individual country and folk performer, he possessed all the attributes of an artist capable of carving out a significant career on the UK circuit. His performance was in synch with the sentiment of the evening and leaving a favourable impression is one of the core objectives of opening for a more established artist. Without doubt more will be heard of Claydon in the future and opportunities like this evening will likely to continue as time progresses.

Sara summed up this UK tour as an opportunity to re-connect with the stripped down basics of the new album, a record that she shared with many others during its evolution. While it would be useful to experience the songs in the band sphere, this method of showcase worked extremely well and the innate talent was fully exposed in all its finesse. YOUNG IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS has been the year’s most refreshing record and the crux of Sara Watkins is that not only does she possess all the credentials, she uses them in the right way. A true talent of our time and the architect of a memorable show this evening. 

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