Is there anything more adorable than a slightly dewy Sara Watkins on a stormy D.C. night? We would argue no, no there isn’t. Opening for L.A. vintage rockers Dawes on Friday at the 9:30 Club, the sweetheart of the nouveau-bluegrass scene charmed the rain-soaked socks right off her audience with a combination of fiddlin’ (yeah, we said fiddlin’) and singing and adorable little anecdotes that made us once again flash our NMTOB-E placards. That’s Never Miss The Opening Band - Ever, for those of you in the back. Oh, and did we mention she’s adorable?
Watkins doesn’t have the shyness or newness you’d expect from a young-ish artist just after her second solo album, because she’s been performing since 1989 with the now-defunct Nickel Creek. Accompanied by her brother and NC-bandmate Sean on this tour, Watkins bounded on stage with violin held high, and started a lovely instrumental that melded into “You & Me,” one of the brightest tracks from last month’s Sun Midnight Sun. Following up with “Too Much,” you’d have been justified in thinking it was delivered a cappella -- Watkins’ honey-tinged voice approached Alison Kraussian levels of perfection, and she ended that number with a jazzy little flourish of her violin bow.
Throughout the evening Watkins introduced songs, gave a brief history of the tracks she covered, and joked around with her brother, in particular before “You’re the One I Love” which is about, uh, love. Fiona Apple provides back-up harmony on the studio version, but Sean was a terrific substitute. While Apple’s growl gives the recorded song a lot of its drive, Sean’s voice syncs perfectly with his sister’s, probably because of the high-quality DNA running through the Watkins household.
The tracks on her new album are deeper, grittier, and more electric than the live versions, but Watkins’ voice is more powerful live, and dear Lord, that fiddle. If it could weep, it would have been bawling all over songs like “Impossible,” which is pretty much just longing set to music. Watkins’ overall sunshiney-ness permeated the first two-thirds of the set, but for her cover of Dan Wilson’s “When it Pleases You,” she picked up a drum brush and a mallet and showed a flash of a darker side. Using percussion skills honed during her recent stint with the Decemberists, Watkins whacked an upright bass drum while delivering the heartbreaker of a song. Dredging up every bad relationship you've ever had, she moved into “Same Mistakes,” a Jon Brion song from her first album, and all the hearts fell into all the collective knees at the 9:30 Club.
And then she smiles, and you forget all that sad shit and move right into the closer - John Hartford's “Long Hot Summer Days,” with sultry violin layered between verses. The 9:30 was mercifully at full blast on the air conditioning as Sara Watkins sashayed off the stage to huge applause proving that we here at CG aren’t the only ones who hope she’ll be back, real soon.