After more than a decade’s worth of monthly variety shows in Los Angeles, the Watkins Family Hour have turned themselves into a traveling band, embarking on a tour that kicked off at the Newport Folk Festival last Thursday. Stealing the show that night was the band’s version of “When I Get Low I Get High,” originally made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, with frequent Watkins Family Hour guest Fiona Apple on lead vocals.
Apple’s collaboration with the Nickel Creek siblings should be of no surprise. Earlier this year, the Idler Wheel singer partnered with Sean Watkins on the bluegrass standard “Banks of the Ohio,” and on July 24th, Family Hour Records (via Thirty Tigers) released Watkins Family Hour, a full-length album of covers performed by the troupe. The album, whose rotating lineup of vocalists includes Apple, is a commemoration of the vaudeville-meets-Appalachia material the Watkins have been performing in their live revue since the early 2000s.
“For the last 12 years, the Watkins Family Hour has been a live show that we did almost exclusively at Largo in L.A., with the help of some of our very favorite musicians and friends,” Sean Watkins told Rolling Stone Country in April. “It’s something that my sister Sara and I are very passionate about. We couldn’t be more excited to release this record, and to be taking it on the road with Fiona and the band this summer.”
Thursday’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival marked the start of a tour whose shows, like the album they support, will feature new musical recruits every night to enhance the experience. In the clip above, the live performance of “When I Get Low I Get High” shows Apple nestled between the two Watkins siblings, already appearing to be part of the family. True to the fly-by-night nature of the Watkins Family Hour’s approach, the lyrics are a slipshod jumbling of Fitzgerald’s interpretation, enhanced by the interplay of Sara Watkins’ yelps on the fiddle and a jazz-saturated piano solo from Benmont Tench, a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
While the tune isn’t one of the 11 classics featured the album, it still paints a picture of the sound and style the Watkins Family Hour brought to a tiny Los Angeles club for 12 years running, and it characterizes the atmosphere audiences can expect to see this summer at the upcoming live shows.