ON the Beat | Family Affair with Friends Attached at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall

The Watkins Family Hour at UCSB’s Campbell Hall | Credit: David Bazemore Photo

This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on December 8, 2022. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


Holiday-mindedness is the rule this month, maybe more so than in the past three years. Thus, it is incumbent on me to report that the Watkins Family Hour concert last week at Campbell Hall featured only one actual Christmas song. Granted, the tune was an obscure and instantly loveable gem from Guatemala, sung by very special guest and Guatemalan-in-L.A. Gaby Moreno.

Even so, some implicit holiday spirit — of the good-hearted family gathering sort — descended in the room with the return of the ever-malleable project led by Sara (voice, fiddle) and Sean Watkins (voice, guitar). We can thank the hip Los Angeles haven of Largo for the monthly series, in which the siblings — also leaders in their own rights and founders of Nickel Creek — invite noted guests to the club (and their special club) once a month. They are currently promoting both the 20th anniversary of the Family Hour, and a new, third album, Vol. II, from which the concert included Ernest Tubbs’ “Thanks a Lot” and tUnE-yArDs’ “Look into the Edges.”

Needless to say, diversity rules in this family. It also rules in their rich body of originals, from sensitive singer-songwriter fare to brisk bluegrass workouts, harkening back to their youths as bluegrass champions in the backwoods of San Diego.

At the Campbell show,Sara mentioned that the first “out of town” gig for the Family Hour project was at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre, as part of the legendary “Sings like Hell” series. This time in S.B., the core group included the tasteful ace musician Rich Hinman, ladling out melodic and sometimes inventive work on pedal steel. Though slated to appear as a guest, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy was MIA due to COVID, replaced on short notice by the warm and soulful Moreno, who — in terms of a surprise element and as an artist deserving great recognition — may have stolen the show.

Glen Phillips | Credit: Courtesy

Another guest, Santa Barbara’s own Glen Phillips, was at least half-expected. Phillips, who recently wowed a SOhO crowd amidst the release of his best solo album to date, There is So Much Here, has a natural honorary familial link to the Watkins, having played alongside and with the Watkinses in various forms for 20-plus years. On this night, two of Phillips’ songs resonated with an affably anthemic quality. “Sound of Drinking,” the highlight of his new album, is a poetic reflection on the life-appreciative upside of the COVID lockdown (“the long year, the slow days/there is so much here that I have never seen”). As a ripe show-closer, they called on Phillips’ gospel-tinged “Grief and Praise,” which also closes the new Watkins album. Both songs deserve induction into some list of classic songs to know and love, in a timeless fashion.

The extended family did those songs justice, as is written in the family code amply on display last week.


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Good Album, Happy Fans


Bill Frisell four Album Cover | Credit: Monica Frisell

Although Bill Frisell’s fabulous new album four (Blue Note) isn’t exactly a holiday affair, listeners in search of a “party favor” should proceed to track #4, the perky-quirky “Holiday.” It bounces and bustles, with Monk’s influence in the margins, and maybe some back porch-y Americana (the spirit, not the format) in the seasoning. Drop it into a holiday party playlist and see what happens.

Frisell, after all these years still one of the most distinctive, organically genre-blurring and rightfully beloved electric guitarists around, keeps keeping us customers satisfied, in myriad ways and formats. Despite his being labeled as a jazz guitarist, which is a large part of his DNA, he has long chafed at being limited by that tag.

After working with a magical three-as-one trio (with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston) and releasing the miraculous solo album Music IS in 2018, he turned to the foursome format. This time around, he finds simpatico new allies in pianist Gerald Clayton (whose evolving versatility and vision continue to impress), saxist/flutist Gregory Tardy (great to hear horn textures on this Frisell-iana) and drummer Jonathan Blake. They all get along beautifully, with the benevolent leader in center, but deceptively unassuming in his usual way.  

Venturing into the 13-tune song list, longtime fans will find memories triggered and rejiggered, as he touches on songs from his vast discography, including the restlessly brooding “Lookout for Hope,” title track of his 1988 ECM album, and the contented, arty-country hum of “Good Dog, Happy Man,” the title track of his 1999 album on Nonesuch. There is a wistful and wintry air to some of the album, with respects paid to musical figures recently lost: The album is dedicated to the great and underrated cornetist Ron Miles, a frequent Frisell collaborator, and features “Waltz for Hal Willner,” the magician behind the curtain of American music, at SNL and so many other projects.

For discerning gift-shoppers looking to satisfy that certain someone with ears extending across genres, four is a fearsomely lyrical and moving package. It certainly deserves its spot on this year’s Top Ten list, at least in the um, jazz division. The reluctant guitar hero strikes again, gently but deeply.

To-Doings

Two shows on the upcoming radar illustrate the beauty of variety in the holiday music hopper this year. The Santa Barbara Choral Society’s “Hallelujah Project,” at the Lobero this weekend (see story), brings us J.S. Bach and Santa, while the “Hometown Holiday Hoedown,” at SOhO on Thursday (December 15), brings us rock flavorings of host Chris (Foo Fighters) ShiflettNerf Herder and Logan Livermore (story here).


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