Adventures in Concertgoing
Heading Back to Nashville, Thinking 'Bout the Whole Thing

What did you do last weekend?

OK, I admit it. I don’t care that much about your weekend. I only asked that question to prompt you to ask it back, because I had an adventure and I wanted to tell you about it. I know, that was selfish of me, and I’m sorry. Please. Tell me about your weekend. I’m serious this time, I’m really interested.

You did what? That sounds like fun. Oh, no way! Hilarious. I’m glad that happened, and I’m sorry that other thing happened.

What’s that? How was my weekend? I’m glad you asked.

So I’m a big fan of Nickel Creek, as you all probably know. Their new album, A Dotted Line, came awful close to my top 10 list last year, and the band’s mandolin maestro, Chris Thile, is all but guaranteed a spot on this year’s list with his other band, Punch Brothers. Thile gets a lot of the attention (even from me), but I’m also over the moon about his Nickel Creek bandmates, Sean and Sara Watkins. And when I heard that the siblings would be touring with a veritable who’s who of outstanding musicians as the Watkins Family Hour, well… you can guess my reaction.

I wasn’t alone. Several of my group of friends here in Illinois felt the same way about possibly seeing the WFH, but when we looked into tickets for their one Chicago stop, they were already sold out. So we did the next most logical thing – we bought tickets for their show at City Winery in Nashville. And then four of us clambered into my car and drove the eight hours down to Music City, met up with five other friends (two from Nashville, two from Illinois and one from Georgia) and saw what was one of my favorite live music experiences.

So let me tell you about it.

We started our drive on the Saturday morning of the show. We would have left on Friday night, except Hall and Oates were playing my home town on that night, and I didn’t want to miss it. That’s almost another story in itself – they were really good. They had a top-notch band with them, and they performed for more than two hours, playing nothing but instantly recognizable hits. When you can open with “Maneater” and “Out of Touch,” and then close with “Rich Girl,” “You Make My Dreams,” “Kiss on My List” and “Private Eyes,” all in a row, must feel amazing.

So anyway, there was that, and then about five hours of sleep, and eight hours of driving, so I was a bit bleary-eyed when I walked into City Winery. But I quickly woke up. The venue is absolutely beautiful, and because we had bought early, we were right in front of the stage. I don’t mean we were up front and yet some reasonable distance from the stage. I mean a few of our party could lean on the stage without getting up from their chairs.

If you’ve never been to a City Winery, they’re extraordinary places to see live music. They treat the performance like the work of art it is – they ask for silence, and demand you shut your cell phones off. Flash photography is also frowned upon. The venue in Nashville was full-table seating, with a full menu and delicious desserts, and the acoustics were to die for. It’s a place that appreciates the importance of live music, the reverence of it. It treats live performance like the one-time magical act of creation that it is.

The Watkins siblings have been playing as the Watkins Family Hour in Los Angeles for more than a decade. (“We’ve been doing this show for 12 years,” Sean Watkins said, and without missing a beat, his sister quipped, “This exact show. We’ve really zeroed in on it over the last 10 years.”) Their musical collective includes drummer Don Heffington (known for playing with Emmylou Harris, among others), bassist Sebastian Steinberg (former Soul Coughing member and longtime session player) and piano wizard Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). Yes, I was only a few feet from Ben Tench, and yes, I took full advantage, watching his every roll and solo. He’s awesome.

Oh, and then there’s Fiona Apple. She’s certainly the thing-not-like-the-others in this group, and it’s almost hard to imagine how she hooked up with them all. (Steinberg played bass on Apple’s latest, The Idler Wheel…, but that’s the only obvious connection.) At our show, Apple looked like she was on a day pass from the mental hospital, wearing grungy clothes she might have slept in and sporting freshly drawn magic marker tattoo sleeves. But man, that woman can sing. Early on, the band performed Skeeter Davis’ 1961 hit “Where I Ought to Be,” and Fiona just nailed it.

The whole night was full of interesting surprises like that. Sean Watkins took lead on a song he introduced as one close to his heart – “Not in Nottingham,” a lament written for the 1973 animated Robin Hood film. (Yes, the one in which Robin is a fox.) The Family Hour’s performance of it was subtle and lovely. Traditional song “Hop High” was a highlight, Tench and Sara Watkins trading off piano and fiddle solos. (Watkins is a wonder on the fiddle, playing with fire and grace.) Apple sang lead on a couple old-time murder ballads, then put her distinctive stamp on the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.”

And then there were the guest stars. As I understand it, the Family Hour picks up different special guests in each city, and man, I’m glad we went to Nashville. I was introduced to the Secret Sisters, a strong-voiced duo with a pair of fine albums – their original “Bad Habit” was a dark and delightful ride. And I got to see Buddy Freaking Miller play guitar and sing on half a dozen songs. Miller is a long-time Nashville guru – he’s played on a million records, made a good number of his own, and produced some of the biggest names in town. (Most recently, he was part of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.) His voice is fantastic, his playing even better, and hearing him do “That’s How I Got to Memphis” was one of the undisputed high points.

After the show, the band (save Fiona) just hung out, ready and willing to talk to anyone. The whole thing had an intimate family feel to it. I bought the collective’s self-titled album, because of course I did, and found it to be just as enjoyable as the show. Like the concert, it opens with Robert Earl Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again,” on which the Watkins siblings harmonize like angels. Pedal steel god Greg Liesz was part of the recording band, and he shines on the old-school country songs included here, like “Prescription for the Blues” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” “Not in Nottingham” is here, as is “Brokedown Palace,” and “Hop High” provides the clear highlight, Ben and Sara stealing the show.

What else? While in Nashville, we visited the Johnny Cash museum, and Third Man Records, and the Opryland Hotel and Gardens, where I fell asleep near a waterfall. We visited Robert’s Western World, home of the legendary BR-549. We had drinks on a rooftop overlooking downtown, and lingered outside several honky-tonk clubs, taking in the music. Then I drove another eight hours home. Adventure!

In summary, it was an exhausting weekend, and I’m grateful for good friends who shared it with me. Nashville is a fun place to visit, and City Winery an incredible place to see a show. And as for the Watkins Family Hour? If they are anywhere near your hometown, do yourself a favor and go see them. In fact, you should do that even if they’re nowhere near your hometown.

Next week, someone I know and someone I just met. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.