That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Any venue that can collect the Watkins siblings, Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinburg, Blake Miller, Joe Purdy, and Fiona Apple onto a single stage deserves all the praise that it can receive. The Watkins Family Hour is a Largo tradition, and its most recent edition was a typically stellar showing. The only complaint that one could possibly make about the night was that it ended far too quickly, with barely enough time to bring all the guests onstage, much less let Sara and Sean Watkins really stretch out into some epic fiddle-and-guitar bluegrass breakdowns. (Having seen the Watkins Family Hour perform for more than two hours last year in the intimate Little Room of the Largo is probably a critical bias.) Which is not to say that there was a deficit of pickin’.
The show kicked off with Sean and Sara performing an uptempo instrumental duet entitled “Booth Shot Lincoln” (“Based on a true story,” according to Sean). The siblings have, if not a telepathic connection, a highly intuitive sense of how to push and pull on each others’ playing to coax the most complementary sounds out of their respective instruments. This auspicious beginning was followed by unsurprisingly excellent versions of Sara’s “All This Time” and the old Nickel Creek favorite, “Somebody More Like You.” Then it was time for the cavalcade of guest stars, starting with the prolific yet relatively unknown Joe Purdy.
The theme of the night, as announced at the beginning of the show by Sara, was bands with the word “brothers” in the title, so it was appropriate that Purdy joined Sean and Sara in transposing the two-part harmonies of a Stanley Brothers classic into three parts, with general success. This was followed by the Watkins Family Hour backing Purdy on his song “Pioneer,” a moving meditation on the sacrifices that a family makes in search of a better life. Joe Purdy has a singular stage presence, singing in an energetic yowl and swaying violently while plucking his acoustic guitar. Between songs, he seemed almost stoned, keeping the crowd entertained by mumbling to himself and telling a rambling story about how his father wasn’t impressed by his success until he got a call from Sean Watkins.
The next person to walk onstage was the biggest name of all—the ageless Jackson Browne. Seriously, the man looks the same as he did twenty-five years ago. Maybe forty. He showed that his talent has remained as durable as his appearance by continuing the “brothers” theme with “Cathy’s Clown” (by the Everly Brothers), performed as a duet with Benmont Tench. Let’s talk about Benmont Tench for a moment. In a just world, he would be as famous as Eric Clapton, or at least Donald “Duck” Dunn. The man can play anything with keys, and the list of artists he has worked with as a session musician boggles the mind. The fact that he might only be the second most-talented regular at Largo is just a testament to the otherworldly nature of Jon Brion’s genius.
After a solid version of Ry Cooder’s “Borderline,” Browne exited stage right along with the rest of the band to make room for some alone time with Sean and Sara. Sean sang a tune that he had written for last spring’s failed rapture, simply called “May 21st.” This song could easily have lapsed into broad parody, but even though it did have several laugh-out-loud moments, these were balanced with a generous empathy and refusal to judge that prevented “May 21st” from being a mere novelty song. The rendition of the Super Mario Brothers theme song, on the other hand, was nothing if not a novelty, especially as enhanced with jew’s harp accompaniment. Also, there was a Louvin Brothers cover in there somewhere.
When the entire Watkins Family Hour band returned, it was with Fiona Apple in tow, who proceeded to deliver a stunning interpretation of Dolly Parton’s classic title track off of her 1974 album Jolene. Apparently, Apple has been singing “Jolene” with some regularity at Largo for past year or so, but as a first-timer, it was hard not to be blown away by the vocal power and emotional pathos that she brought to the song. Her voice quavered, but she wisely pulled back from the edge, refusing to give in to schmaltz or over-sentimentality. When she finally unloaded on the final chorus, the moment of catharsis was well-earned. It was hard to see how anyone could follow up this performance, yet that is exactly what happened when every single musician that had been on stage during the evening returned for a climactic rendition of “Brokedown Palace,” with each artist getting a verse or a solo, culminating in a stage-wide sing-a-long.
This would have been as good as any to bring the set to a close, but you can never have too much of a good thing, so everyone stuck around for an enjoyably ramshackle version of “Twist and Shout” (by the Isley Brothers, natch). Featuring Fiona Apple forgetting the words, three separate acoustic guitar players, and Sara Watkins egging on audience participation, it was a great way to end the night. But much like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, this night was to have yet another ending, because just as the audience began to file out, former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips took the stage. As we rushed back to our seats, he joined the Watkins siblings and Tench in singing “Rise Up,” which he penned for their shared supergroup, Works Progress Administration. Finally it was time to leave, with the lyrics echoing the feelings all steady Largo concertgoers have for our beloved venue: “It will not fall ever.”