‘Hour’ Town: Watkins Variety Show Heads to UCSB

By Steven Libowitz   |   November 29, 2022
Sean and Sara Watkins have spent a special hour with friends for over 20 years

The first time Sean and Sara Watkins brought the Watkins Family Hour (WFH) to Santa Barbara was back in March of 2014 in a Sings Like Hell show at the Lobero. The monthly gig at L.A.’s famed Largo anchored by the brother and sister (guitar and fiddle, respectively), who represented two-thirds of the Grammy-winning bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, was barely a year old and the concert was their first time away from its home base – a one-off to satisfy an invitation from Montecito’s own Glen Phillips, a friend and colleague. 

WFH was a regular gig that started as an opportunity to get in some relaxed public performances in between Nickel Creek tours and mushroomed into so much more.

“Back then, the owner told us he didn’t care how many people showed up. We could use the gig to try out new songs, play covers, do instrumentals, have guests, whatever we wanted,” Sean recalled. “It was incredible because everybody who played there were among our heroes. It’s like, we’re now in with the cool kids. We figured it would be fun for a while.” 

Nearly two decades later, WFH is not only still going strong, it has become its own little institution. This Americana variety show, in the truest sense of the word, has become a gathering place where the duo works out new material while collaborating and experimenting with an ever-widening circle of other players. Their eccentric guests have ranged over the years from fellow folkies and singer-songwriters such as Gillian Welch, Fiona Apple, and Jackson Browne to jazz greats like pianist Brad Mehldau, rocker John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame, and even comedians such as John C. Reilly

“It’s been a huge cornerstone in our lives, and enabled us to meet so many of our friends and musicians here in L.A. and become a big part of this community,” Sean said. “It’s never gotten old because it’s always evolving as we bring in new people and try different combinations and do different things. It’s an incredible vehicle, a conduit for creativity and collaboration with people we probably never have worked with or even met otherwise.” 

There have been many magical moments over the years, Sean recalled, ones where a dozen people or more would drop by for the gig during the Grammy Awards, with unique one-time-only combinations. 

“But there’s also periods where it’s just Sara and me playing as a duo that are super special because getting to play music in public with your sibling is always great.” 

Among the additions in the canon was making WFH a recording project. Three albums have been released over the last seven years, two containing covers recorded with dozens of WFH guests, sandwiched around a more intimate sibling effort titled simply Brother Sister in 2020. Promoting the latest disc, which came out earlier this year, is the impetus for WFH finally returning to town for a date at Campbell Hall on November 29. 

“It’s a 20-year anniversary celebration of the people and songs that have been a part of the Family Hour over the years, and new ones like a cover of the Tune-Yards, which we heard on the radio and just decided to record,” Sean said. 

The UCSB show features longtime WFH collaborator Rich Hinman on pedal steel guitar and singer-songwriter-guitarist Margaret Glaspy as a special guest, each of whom will offer some of their own material. But with L.A. just 90 miles away, surprises are likely in store. 

“We’ve got a lot of friends,” Sean said. “We’ll definitely be inviting a bunch of them.”


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