‘Watkins Family Hour’ is a gloriously rendered celebration


Watkins Family Hour, “Watkins Family Hour” (Family Hour Records). A delicacy of touch and detail permeates the Watkins Family Hour’s notes, measures and melodies. If the seven players were builders, this self-titled debut would be a gloriously rendered cathedral. The result of a long-running residency that Nickel Creek sibling members Sara Watkins (violin, vocals) and Sean Watkins (guitar, vocals) host at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles, the Family Hour serves as the hub of a community, regularly converging to honor songs — classic country, folk, rock and whatnot.

On its new studio album, the pair gather regular Largo collaborators — keyboard player Benmont Tench, drummer Don Heffington, pedal steel player Greg Leisz, backing vocalist Fiona Apple and bassist Sebastian Steinberg — to celebrate work made famous by Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Skeeter Davis, Gordon Lightfoot, Roger Miller and others. Their version of Bob Dylan’s mid-1970s gem “Going, Going, Gone” opens with Sean’s resonant strums and voice before moving into a lovelorn ballad about “a place where the willow don’t bend.” On “The King of the 12-Ounce Bottles,” Heffington sings a hardened country song (penned by Fear singer-actor Lee Ving) about a life “with so much beer, but so little time.”

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Sly & the Family Stone, “Live at the Fillmore East, October 4 & 5th 1968” (Sony/Legacy). Across four shows in two nights in New York, a peak-form Sly & the Family Stone took over Bill Graham’s Fillmore East for a buoyant set of theater dates. The band’s label, Epic, recorded the shows, but the tapes languished in the vault. This collection gathers the lot of it, presenting a portrait of a large funk and soul band on fire.

The recordings capture Sylvester “Sly” Stewart and the Family Stone working out kinks, synthesizing genres and getting tight just before blowing up nationally the next year at Woodstock. Its only big hit at the time was “Dance to the Music,” which the band played at three of the Fillmore shows. As captured here, each time, it’s an epiphany, raw and ragged, with hard guitar action, heavy Larry Graham bass lines and an energy-fueled exuberance.

The Family Stone’s take on “Are You Ready” blossoms from gig to gig. During Set 1, it clocks in at under five minutes. By the final show, it’s been worked into a nearly eight-minute frenzy of brass, rhythm and group shout-alongs. Elsewhere, the band covers work made famous by Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. A medley of Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and the Family Stone’s “Turn Me Loose” is a bridge that connects hard soul and James Brown-inspired proto-funk with Stewart’s explosive arranging. Heavy stuff all around — and available on the major streaming services.


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