Willie Watson Celebrates New Album at Mercury Lounge

May 22nd, 2014

Willie Watson – Mercury Lounge – May 21, 2014


“I guess I’m a folk singer now,” announced Willie Watson midway through his show at Mercury Lounge last night, the now implying he was previously something else. Watching him hold the sold-out audience in rapt attention as he made his way through folk standards, a sweet, natural warble in his voice, alternating between guitar and banjo easily, it felt like he was born a folk singer. Opening with “Take This Hammer” (later explaining that there are lots of “hammer songs” in folk music), Watson stood alone, working the time-tested material like sandpaper to a piece of wood, bringing out the simple, natural, beautiful grain.

The set was filled with traditional folk music: songs about drinking, trains and bank robbers, doing wrong by women and (barely) being saved (or not), and John Henry’s hammer—many featured on Watson’s new album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. The crowd filled in the gaps with plenty of shouts, all drawn in for the early set, many straight from work, by the higher power of folk music, a weekday religious service of sorts. Watson moved easily through the material, switching between banjo and guitar on almost every song, filling little solos in between verses. He played on the theme of folk tradition, setting up a sing-along for “Stewball,” the audience waiting for the moment to pounce.

Humorous moments drew laughter while songs of pure, simple beauty had the room silent. As Watson closed the highly entertaining set with “On the Road Again,” it became obvious how infinite the folk-music canon is, and that despite him squeezing in tons of material, both familiar and un-, into the hour, it was like examining the contents of the ocean with a Dixie cup. No wonder the album is only Vol. 1. To prove the point, Watson saved the best for last, encoring with an excellent version of Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider,” blowing his harmonica in that gorgeous, mournful folk tradition and then finishing with a rousing, crowd-pleasing “Midnight Special.” The audience filed out, eager for more, already anticipating, I’m sure, Vol. 2. —A. Stein