There are better times to be in New York than when the temps hit the nineties and you can’t shake the humidity, day after torrid day. But the heat doesn’t seem to bother Sara Watkins as the singer heads out for morning coffee in Brooklyn, where she and the troupe of musicians who make up Watkins Family Hour — her brother/Nickel Creek cohort, Sean; Fiona Apple; Benmont Tench; Sebastian Steinberg; Greg Leisz; and Don Heffington — are camped. “It’s kind of crazy, but we wanted to do a residency in New York,” she admits on the final day of a three-night stint at the City Winery at the end of July.
When the collective returns this week to perform at the AmericanaFest tribute to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the Watkins Family Hour core band forms the backbone of an all-star group also featuring Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Pokey LaFarge, and Justin Townes Earle. “There are some people we can talk about, and some we can’t,” the 34-year-old California native says, keeping the night’s full guest list a mystery.
The Family Hour began as a monthly residency hosted by Sara and Sean at Los Angeles’ Largo at the Coronet club. This summer’s residency tour, the band’s first outings outside Largo, comes on the heels of the Family Hour’s self-titled debut album, released on July 24 via Thirty Tigers. Like the live shows, the album features folk and bluegrass covers, varying from Roger Miller’s “Not in Nottingham” to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Steal Your Heart Away” to the traditional song “Hop High.” The Watkins sibs mostly take lead vocal turns, but Apple, Tench, Steinberg, and Heffington lead on some. Astoundingly, the recording took a short three days: “We all just showed up and started talking about songs we wanted to do. Some songs had been with us a long time, some we’d played for the past few years, but it just came together.
“The reason we made a recording in the first place was because we’d been doing the show for all this time and we didn’t have any documentation,” Watkins continues. “Band members have come and gone — who plays depends on who’s in town. That being said, for the last five or six years, it’s become more consistent. If these guys are in town, they are there. We aren’t reliant on them being there, but it’s always the best when they are there. Having become more of a solid band, we thought we’d make this record. Nothing big, just go into a friend’s studio. But once it was finished, we thought, ‘This is pretty cool, we should do some shows in New York,’ and that turned into two months on the road.”
Everyone on the album is along for the tour, except for pedal steel maestro Leisz, who is out with Jackson Browne, himself a Family Hour sit-in from time to time. Though the title of both the record and revue name-checks the Nickel Creek stars, it’s clearly an extended family. “It really does feel like that,” says Watkins. “When Shawn Colvin was a special guest [at City Winery] the other night, she said onstage, ‘It’s good to be part of the family,’ which is so touching and meaningful. It’s our hope that people feel that.” The audience is part of the family, too: “It’s a great excuse to hang out with whomever and play, which I try to bring the audience into. The interplay when you rehearse or backstage hanging out — we want people to see that without it taking away from some of these amazing performances.”
Of course, it’s fun to play with amazing people, jamming on amazing songs, but the Watkinses get much more than that momentary pleasure. “Everything adds to everything. Any side project you do adds to what you do in the future. You can learn something from everything. Through the Family Hour, a lot of Nickel Creek songs came out of writing for different instrumentation for Family Hour, not Nickel Creek. Mostly, it’s contributed to making us better musicians by being involved in this community.”
For over a decade, the Largo event was a bolthole for the Watkins duo and the other members, who, returning from long tours on which they’d played their own songs night after night, can find respite and wind down and recall why they got into this in the first place: a great song. “When we first started doing it, it was an outlet from some intense touring Sean and I were doing at the time. It was an opportunity to play other people’s songs and it was nice to sing common songs again. Much of that old folk and early country, and even American Songbook stuff like the Beach Boys, a lot of musicians want to celebrate those songs.”
Watkins Family Hour perform on August 8 at the Damrosch Park Bandshell at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. For performance information, click here.