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Sara Watkins – Mercury Lounge – April 22, 2009

April 23rd, 2009
(Photo: Keremy Cowart)

(Photo: Jeremy Cowart)

As her show began last night at Mercury Lounge, Sara Watkins mentioned that it was only her fourth time as a solo headliner ever. “And it’s in New York of all places,” she continued, “Which is just…fantastic.” Though no stranger to performing (Watkins is also a member of Nickel Creek), fantastic is not necessarily the word one expects to hear in reference to a show for New York City’s famously fickle crowds.

Watkins began on a high note, taking the stage with her band and stomping out a beat. Cradling her fiddle, she effortlessly launched into a rousing bluegrass number. With skills like that, Watkins deserves to feel fantastic. Throughout the show, her powerful vocals highlighted songs from her debut solo album, Sara Watkins, and a selection of cover songs by artists both traditional (John Hartford, Jimmie Rogers) and contemporary (Tom Waits, Jon Brion). Watkins’ songwriting is strong and the emotion behind her lyrics is tangible. The reflective “All This Time,” the album’s opening track, was especially striking live, including the crushingly frank and effective line: “I’m finally breaking it off/with your memory.”

As the set wound down, guitarist (and brother) Sean Watkins plucked a very familiar intro: It was Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” Sara’s plaintive rendition was as heart wrenching as the original. To her great testament, she manages to take a song so utterly distinctive and make it her own. But given the strength of her show, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. —Alena Kastin