Thursday, November 12, 2009

20 Days in November - Day 7: WPA

Tonight I decided to skip Bob Dylan and instead attend a show at nearby Barns of WolfTrap featuring Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA is composed of "superstars" Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Luke Bulla (Jerry Douglas Band), and Sean Watkins (Nickle Creek). Along with Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Randy Newman), and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Cracker), these artists recorded 17 songs together at recording engineer Jim Scott's L.A. studio. A dozen of these made it into their self titled CD, wpa, in which you can listen to tracks and purchase from the MyJoog home page. Because of other obligations, WPA did not perform this evening as a full band - instead by Quintet - with Phillips, Bulla, and Watkins joined by Sebastian Steinberg (bass) and Jerry Roe (drums).

The Barns is a great music venue; the acoustics are phenomenal and it has an interesting design. Phillips said that it reminded him of the Country Bear Jamboree, without the bears, but with a full bar. I lucked out with my seat, purchasing a ticket a showtime and receiving a front row, center seat. Got to like that. The Spring Standards opened and were a big hit as evident by the long line of CD buyers at intermission. This is one band that you need to view live in order to appreciate. During every song the trio play multiple instruments simultaneously. While singing, Heather can play the keyboards with one hand and maintain rhythm on a drum with the other - all without missing a beat. Both James play the guitar while using their feet to beat symbols or a bass drum. Or play the trumpet with one hand and whisk away on percussion with the other. They are generate interesting sound with the xylophone or drumming the rim of the drum. And despite the distraction of watching them play in this unusual style - they are really amazing musicians - go out and see this group.

WPA followed and what an entertaining show. Phillips, Bulla, and Watkins come off as friends playing in your basement - joking amongst themselves, taking responsibility for equipment problems, or when taking too long to tune an instrument. As for the music, the first impression is that you are among serious professionals. It actually starts with the rhythm section and Roe and Steinberg. The acoustics are so clear in the venue that the drums and bass are heard perfectly - subtle - but a necessary presence. I spent most of the night watching Roe effortlessly set the tone for each song. The second impression is that the amalgam of bluegrass and alt-rock works - and as Bulla and Watkins explained, they are pulling Phillips over to the Bluegrass side - or at least an alt-country\bluegrass combination. This is evident in Bulla's “Who’s Gonna Cry For You” and “Remember Well”; several of Watkin's songs including "Somebody More Like You", "Cherokee Shuffle", and “Not Sure” - sung by Bulla; a Del McCoury cover; as well as a "tragic" song about lesbians from the great bluegrass band Weezer. Bulla shines on the fiddle and Watkins can pick the guitar. He was probably mimicking the mandolin on several of these songs. But even these bluegrass styled tunes were not performed in the traditional bluegrass style - more of an alt-rock flavor - not surprising with the drums and electric bass on board. But this is also a result of Phillips influence. The opening song tonight as well as the CD was his "Always Have My Love" - closer to the Wet Sprocket sound; my favorite track. They also performed his "Good As Ever", the powerful "Rise Up", and a hilarious tale concerning a "dog drive-by shooting". But Phillips does get his country on in "A Wedding or a Wake" - this is a fun song to watch them play. Appropriately, for me, they finished the night with a Dylan cover - but a real treat watching three songwriters perform their trade. I look forward to Merlefest where hopefully, the full ensemble will appear.

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