WPA to make Aspen debut
ASPEN – It is highly possible that, even when Sean Watkins is old and sitting in a rocking chair on a Southern California porch, picking his guitar, the first association music fans will make when Watkins’ name comes up is with his first band, Nickel Creek.It’s hard to argue against that thinking. Through most of the ’00s, the trio of Watkins, his fiddling sister Sara, and mandolinist Chris Thile were the biggest thing in string music. Ranging away from bluegrass but clinging tightly to their acoustic instruments, Nickel Creek added folk, indie rock and an experimental approach to their music. At the same time, they also flashed serious virtuosity. The result was universal acclaim: a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album; a huge-selling debut CD; appearances at major rock and bluegrass festivals. Cementing the link between Nickel Creek and Watkins was the expanse of time the band endured. From the time the Watkins siblings and Thile came together in 1989 – before any of them had hit their teens – till they played their Farewell For Now tour in 2006-’07, Watkins had spent more than half of his life in Nickel Creek. And he wasn’t yet 30.But Watkins appears to be forging a similarly strong bond in his post-Nickel Creek life. In WPA – alternately known as the Works Progress Administration – the singer-guitarist is flanked by two other musicians: singer-songwriter Glen Phillips, best known as the leader of the ’90s rock group Toad the Wet Sprocket, and fiddler Luke Bulla. To hear Watkins express it, Phillips and Bulla rank with his Nickel Creek mates in shaping his musical existence.Phillips, said Watkins, “is one of those musicians, I always wonder what kind of musician I’d be if I hadn’t run into him. I love his songwriting, love his singing. And he’s turned me onto a lot of great music.”As for Bulla, Watkins has known him since the days of Nickel Creek’s infancy. “We’ve always had this great chemistry. We grew up on bluegrass together,” Watkins said.The seed for WPA – which takes its name from the largest of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies – was planted around 2000, when Watkins reached out to one of his heroes. “I was a huge Toad the Wet Sprocket fan in high school and college. I had a Toad sticker on my guitar, and a friend said, ‘I know Glen; you should get together,'” said Watkins, who, at 32, is eight years younger than Phillips. “We hit it off immediately, musically.”When Watkins embarked on his debut solo album, 2001’s “Let It Fall,” he called on Phillips to contribute vocals. Returning the favor, Phillips asked if Watkins would open a show for him. As it happened, Thile and Sara Watkins were both available for the date, and the full Nickel Creek ended up playing that opening set. A four-way friendship formed, and the quartet recorded an album, “Mutual Admiration Society.”The album didn’t do much. It wasn’t released till three years after it was recorded, and artistically it was flat. The gig that paired Phillips with Nickel Creek, however, would have a more lasting impact.The concert was at Largo, a small Los Angeles club where music is taken seriously: Talking is as forbidden as cell phones, and both policies are enforced. The spot has become a regular stage for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Jon Brion, who has a long-standing Friday night gig. Joining them in finding a home at Largo are the Watkins siblings, who have had a residency for some seven years.When Nickel Creek was winding down, Watkins asked Phillips if he wanted to join him and Bulla in another recording along the lines of “Mutual Admiration Society.” This time, instead of Nickel Creek as the foundation, it would be musicians who congregated at Largo, particularly Sara Watkins, keyboardist Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Greg Leisz, a pedal steel maestro who has played with Joni Mitchell, the Smashing Pumpkins and most everyone in between. Also brought in was Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s long-time drummer who had also done a tour with Nickel Creek. Thomas brought in bassist Davey Faragher, a member of Costello’s current band, the Imposters.That full group recorded “Works Progress Administration,” an album of folk-rock and country that was released last month, and has made a few appearances at Largo, including one last week. Given scheduling constraints, tours by the eight-piece group are next to impossible, but Watkins, Phillips, and Bulla (who also plays in the bands of Lyle Lovett and Jerry Douglas) have carved out time for quick jaunts on the coasts. Their latest trip brings them to the Wheeler Opera House Friday for WPA’s debut. The group is rounded out by drummer Jerry Roe and bassist Sebastian Steinberg.••••Nickel Creek, said Watkins, has not broken up exactly; technically, they are “on the shelf.” “It was just time. We’d been a band for 19 years and we needed to do something else,” he said. “There were a lot of people working for us, and it had become something that was all-or-nothing. So we just decided to stop.” The way Nickel Creek panned out was a mixed blessing. On the negative side, forming a band as a preadolescent, and staying with it into your 30s, doesn’t provide much chance to develop perspective on oneself.”There’s a certain amount of co-dependence that goes on when you’re in a band with people from the time you’re a kid,” Watkins said. “You don’t know what you’re capable of outside the band.”Watkins, who has three solo albums to his credit, is finding out. He plays in Fiction Family, a duo with fellow San Diegoan Jon Foreman, of the rock band Switchfoot, and also performs often with his sister.In WPA, Watkins is trying on new ideas. He contributed three songs to the album, with Phillips writing the bulk of the material. “Works Progress Administration” moves from the speedy swing tune “A Wedding or a Wake,” with country licks from Watkins, to the Rickie Lee Jones-esque piano ballad “The Price,” with vocals by Sara Watkins. Bluegrass is not part of the make-up.Among Watkins’ tunes is the gentle country-ish ballad “Not Sure,” which could be read as a shaky goodbye letter to his old band: “I’m not sure that I’ll get over you/ I’m not sure that I want to,” he croons.Outside of the song, he has no doubts about wanting to move on.”We’re still in the process of figuring out who and what we are,” he said, adding that he’s already thinking about the next WPA album. “It’s nice to have a new palette and a new set of colors to work with.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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