The Watkins Family Hour was never supposed to lead to an album, let alone a touring entity.
Sean and Sara Watkins, the brother-and-sister duo who rose to fame as youngsters in the acoustic trio Nickel Creek, alongside virtuoso mandolin player Chris Thile, started the “family hour” as a monthly residency at the Largo in Los Angeles over a decade ago. It was a way to play music in an informal setting. That show comes to The Grey Eagle for two nights, Friday, Sept. 11, and Saturday, Sept. 12.
“The nice thing about [something like] the family hour is that if you want to just try out a song once or twice, you can,” says Sara, who primarily plays fiddle and sings. “It’s very low-stakes, and the frequency of the shows encourages us to work on songs on a regular basis.”
Although the two have gone on to a variety of gigs since Nickel Creek’s hiatus in 2007 — including solo efforts, one-off collaborations and a brief reunion of the trio in 2014 — the monthly residency continued irregularly throughout. A strict no-taping policy was instituted for these shows, emphasizing the casual vibe that pervaded the sessions and giving it a carefree, workshoplike feel.
“It’s a goal of ours to indulge in the living-room scenario, where everybody wants to play a song and everyone joins in,” Sara says. “It’s like working out [for musicians], but it’s also special and intimate.”
Eventually, Sara and Sean were talked into the studio by producer Sheldon Gomberg, who owns a studio in the Silver Lake neighborhood of LA, to capture the sound and spirit of their monthly jam sessions.
The novelty of star talent — on record and in their touring live band, the siblings are supported by the likes of singer-songwriter and pianist Fiona Apple, pianist and organ player Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz — is part of what gives the sessions’ recording debut its charm. The resulting self-titled album consists of 11 covers with each member of the band taking a turn at the microphone.
The anything-goes nature of the residency translated well in the studio. “We didn’t overthink it,” Sara says. “There were a handful of songs that were natural selections because we’ve been playing them for such a long time. ‘Early Morning Rain’ [is a song] I think we played at our first show and continues to be one we always pull out every once in a while.”
That Gordon Lightfoot tune sits comfortably next to a diverse selection that ranges from the Apple-sung “Where I Ought to Be” (originally a classic country ballad by Skeeter Davis), to a lovely reading by Sean of Roger Miller’s “Not in Nottingham” (a song written for Disney’s animated Robin Hood feature), to Sara’s steely delivery of Crooked Still’s “Hop High.”
On each of these tunes, though, the emphasis is less on nailing a definitive articulation of the song and more on reveling in the interplay of the players themselves. On “Where I Ought to Be,” Sara and Apple sing together almost playfully, while Tench’s piano, Sean’s guitar and Leisz’s pedal steel all slide in and out of the arrangement with a carefree amiability.
“It’s really about the collection of people onstage,” says Sara. “Sometimes there’s more talking and sometimes there’s less [between the songs], but it’s always kind of fun to just enjoy each other’s company.”
As for the long-running nature of the Watkins siblings’ music collaboration — they began performing together in Nickel Creek when Sean was 12 and Sara was 8 — it’s a bit like what a “family hour” would suggest. “It’s just like any sibling relationship,” says Sara. “We work together well, but we can also nit-pick at each other. It’s nice to be able to do that onstage and not be superprofessional sometimes.”
All in all, the touring version of the Watkins Family Hour seems to be living up to the qualities that made the group’s monthly residencies so special. “It’s about valuing the moments you come across,” Sara says. “Playing in the moment is a huge part of what I love about making music.”
WHAT: Watkins Family Hour
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 11 and Saturday, Sept. 12, at 8 p.m. $27 advance/$30 at the door