Live Review

Sara Watkins Impressed Rough Trade NYC in All The Right Ways

Sara Watkins on June 28, 2016

Photo credit: Kira Grunenberg

Listening to Sara Watkins make music just puts a room in a good mood.

A rainy Tuesday night in the trendy corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tucked away at the dead end of 9th Street and Wythe Avenue, Watkins' Rough Trade NYC show – the last one before her new album, Young in All the Wrong Ways, drops (via New West Records) this Friday – was loaded with surprises. Not seeming like it was going to be that way in the last minutes leading up to start time, an inevitably packed room full of (mostly) New Yorkers filled in the 250-capacity space with physical people and with genuine gratification for the chance to hear the multi-instrumentalist's new tunes.

Supporting artist, Mikaela Davis, (who contributes on Watkins' album,) definitely helped set the tone for a night that could be best summed up with the phrase, “well that's different.” Taking front and center stage before a single word was even uttered into the mic, was Davis's elegant harp, adorned with a light cable of alternating bright colors. It's one thing to hear a harp added as part of a conventional band ensemble but Davis's music is harp-powered – given creative variation thanks to her shrewd plucking techniques and a nice board full of tone warping pedals. Her set was marked by an assertive bass and flourishing arpeggios; some of which tinkered quite a bit with unexpected chord progressions and accidental tones, making her songs feel fascinatingly daring and edgy – two words not perhaps immediately associated with the delicate nature of the harp.

Interestingly, just like Davis and her two bandmates, Watkins took the stage afterward with just a bassist and drummer to back her up as well, to equally impressive results, though she set a tone of her own by kicking off with some melodically pristine, completely a capella singing. Thereafter, even though Watkins switched between fiddle, ukelele, and “Pat” – her affectionately named guitar – the reality of there being only the three players never felt like a point of inadequacy. The, at times, bombastic qualities of Watkins' new songs, like Young In All the Wrong Ways' powerful lead single, “Move Me,” was filling and well rounded; punctuated with down beats on the kick drum and with the bass, that were given just an extra touch of force to give the music a bite.

Watkins' stage character was the other half to this standout show, as, for a less-than-ideal weeknight slot, she had the buzzing room fully invested in contributing to the fun. Singing along to her 2014 self-titled album cut, “Long Hot Summer Days,” felt like a giant group jam session, complete with clapping, stomping, and a moment of humanizing inquiry when Watkins – who spoke in time and tune to the melody while she did it – asked into the mic, “Did I sing the one about the gal in Pekin?” Moments like that give a particular show endearing qualities that make the audience and artist really feel like they're sharing the music on the same level, rather than the artist looking down upon their spectators. Additional memorable moments of audience connection included Watkins' invitation to the audience to try (not entirely successfully but A-for effort) whistling the secondary hook to Nickel Creek classic cut, "Anthony," from their pre-hiatus, 2005 record, Why Should The Fire Die?


There's gonna be about four or five times when you're gonna want to whistle and I'm gonna tell you not to but, eh, we'll see how it goes.”


The few non-New Yorker attendees in the room even got a proper nod, as Watkins outwardly mused about midwesterners that might or might not be in the space and, when hands raised all the way at the back, she noted, “I've noticed that's a very midwestern thing, to be in the back of the room.” This was then of course, disproved by a couple who stood very near the front and center, enthusiastically raising their hands and proclaiming their midwestern pride. The joke only got funnier as Watkins fired back, “All right, all right, we've got a few near the front, but, you're still only about second pew.”

The set wasn't stuck on all casual laughs though, as Watkins took time to be conversely quiet and personal through the recollection of a night drive she took out into the California desert that ended up becoming a yearly tradition, inspiring the visually and introspectively descriptive track, “Like New Year's Day.” Wrapping the night with “Tenderhearted,” the easy-flowing closer song of Young In All The Wrong Ways, the last line of the song (Yes it's the tenderhearted / that let life overflow.) seems like a perfect lyric to pair with the common perception of New York City's rough exterior. After a show like that, anyone who might have came to the venue feeling stoic was undoubtedly a little softened up by the time that final note faded out. Jaded New Yorkers? Not last night.