If you are known for your acoustic, bluegrass-inspired country-folk, opening your set with a Fleetwood Mac song may seem odd. Not if you're Sara Watkins. The fiddle-playing third of NickeL Creek has recently stepped out on her own with a self-titled debut solo album released last year. Sunday at Forecastle Festival 2010, Watkins played an eclectic and inspired set of originals and covers.
After Felletwood Mac's Steal Your Heart Away, she did Lord Won't You Help me off her own CD. She introduced Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain by saying, "This is a song for all of you Canadians out there." A few people cheered suggesting they were really from the Great White North. But they really could have been from Shively for all Sara knows.
She returned with solid material from her eponymous debut including Too Much and All This Time. She performed, as she called, "a fiddle tune" that she wrote called Jefferson, and it had the crowd clapping like the cast of Hee-Haw used to do. She played ukulele for the old Stone Ponys-Linda Ronstadt song Different Drum. She also covered Robert Earl Keen's Feelin' Good Again in which Dar Williams came back on stage (her set preceded Watkins') to sing harmony vocals. While Keen may seem like a likely artist for Watkins to cover, her version of Morrisey's The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get worked very well and didn't seem out of place. Then again, Nickel Creek made Pavement's Spit on a Stranger their own, so reworking songs is nothing new for Watkins.
She ended her set with John Hartford's Long Hot Summer Days, which was completely appropriate to play alongside a river in July. Watkins was accompanied more than capably by guitarist Todd Lombardo. She said that he came up from Nashville just to play Forecastle with her. That makes his performance even more impressive, especially considering that her brother Sean has been playing guitar with her on many of her tour dates. Speaking of Sean, he's now part of Works Progress Administration and Fiction Family with Switchfoot's Jon Foreman. In fact, Watkins performed a new, breezy song she wrote with Foreman called Miss My Kisses.
With the other third of Nickel Creek, Chris Thile, also forming his own band, Punch Brothers, Sara has gone the solo route, and it seems to become her. Although she's now 29, she still carries a teen-like youthfulness to her music. That, coupled with the serious musicianship, helped her win over the crowd and provide an enjoyable calm before the nighttime storm of Flaming Lips took over Waterfront Park.