Premiere: The Watkins Family Hour visits 'Brokedown Palace'

Premiere: The Watkins Family Hour visits 'Brokedown Palace'
Sean and Sara Watkins will release their "Watkins Family Hour" group's debut album on July 24. It features songs by a variety of songwriters, and includes contributions from a variety of musicians who have been part of their ongoing residency at Largo in Los Angeles. (Roman Cho)

Over the dozen-plus years that siblings Sean and Sara Watkins have been holding court regularly at the Largo in Los Angeles, they’ve nurtured a communal spirit that seems rarer and rarer.

Their Watkins Family Hour shows have featured a long string of friends and admirers who pop in, often unannounced, simply for the joy of playing music with like-minded musicians. Regular guests have included Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple and Jon Brion.

Now the Watkinses have recorded “Watkins Family Hour,” an album of songs written by others that they will release July 24 as a way of “taking the Watkins Family Hour on tour,” as Sara put it. The Times is premiering the closing track, their version of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.”

“The show is about a community of players and that community stretches across the country,” Sara said in a statement. “If we can’t get everyone to L.A. to do our show, we’ll come to them. We are coming to towns where we have friends and we can have those moments, even if it’s not our home club.

“It’s the people on stage who make that happen; it’s just a matter of getting the right group of people together. We are being thoughtful about where we are going so we can have that sort of flexibility. It will be a very different show in every town.”

“Brokedown Palace,” which first surfaced on the Dead’s 1970 album “American Beauty,” was written by Jerry Garcia and his longtime lyricist-collaborator, Robert Hunter. It’s an elegiac message of farewell—whether to a romantic partner who is leaving or do life itself is subject to the listener’s interpretation. The song's neo-gospel chorus:

Going home, going home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

"I learned 'Brokedown Palace' from Garrison Keillor on a tour I did with him a few summers ago," Sara told The Times. "I feel like this song wants to be played, and I love to sing it."

Added Sean: "'Brokedown Palace' is one of those songs that, once you start playing it, seems to play itself. It's a Grateful Dead song and thus, relatively new, yet it feels like a song that has always existed. It just feels so good right off the bat."

Among the other songs the Watkinses interpret are Harlan Howard’s “Where I Ought to Be,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Dickey Lee Lipscomb’s “She Thinks I Still Care” and Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone.”

The song selection continues the eclecticism for which the Watkinses first became known while recording and touring with mandolinist Chris Thile in the San Diego-based avant-garde bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. The album was recorded live in the studio over three days.

They'll return to their home base at Largo on July 16 before beginning their tour the day the album is released with an appearance July 24 at the venerable Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. The tour continues with 18 other shows in 11 more cities.

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