Like pretty much everybody else in the world, Sean and Sara Watkins were blown away by Joni Mitchell’s surprise return to the stage last month at the Newport Folk Festival, where the 78-year-old singer-songwriter gave her first full public performance since she suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015.
“So incredibly moving,” says Sean, who with his sister and their pal Chris Thile formed the plucky bluegrass trio Nickel Creek in Southern California in 1989, well before the three had entered their teens. Adds Sara of the rollicking Newport gig, for which Mitchell was accompanied by an intergenerational cast of famous friends and admirers: “Just, like, beyond.”
As dazzled as they were, the Watkinses — Sean, 45, sings and plays guitar, while Sara, 41, sings and plays fiddle — also felt a glimmer of recognition: Meant to replicate the so-called Joni Jams she holds at her home in Bel-Air, Mitchell’s all-star concert shared something with the Watkins Family Hour, the freewheeling variety show the siblings have led, with unannounced help now and then from one roots-music luminary or another, for two decades at Los Angeles’ cozy Largo nightclub.
“The spirit in that Joni moment, that’s what we’re always striving for,” Sean says of the monthly gig that over the years has attracted the likes of Booker T. Jones, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Shelby Lynne, Phoebe Bridgers and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Last week, the Watkinses released an album, “Vol. II,” showcasing some of the many relationships they’ve built at the Watkins Family Hour. And Wednesday night they’ll mark their 20th anniversary at Largo with a sold-out performance set to feature appearances by Browne, Glen Phillips and Willie Watson, as well as a few acts whose names they prefer to keep under wraps.
“It’s kind of magic what Sean and Sara have created,” says keyboardist Benmont Tench, a longtime Family Hour regular best known as a founding member of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. The show, which typically combines original tunes and far-flung covers with bits of comedy — actor John C. Reilly is a frequent guest — has a loose, improvisational air; the crowd rarely knows who might turn up on a given night, and sometimes the performers don’t either.
“You’re playing with top-class musicians, but it’s very: ‘Hey, why don’t we try this?’ Or: ‘You should sing that song you love,’ whether or not you can sing,” Tench says with a laugh. The keyboardist notes that because Largo’s piano sits against the venue’s stage-right wall, he’ll often have his back to the other players. “So if a solo comes or if there’s an unexpected stop in the song, Sara will just poke me in the back with the tip of her bow,” he says.
A big draw for the Family Hour audience is the prospect of witnessing historic collaborations — an evening, for instance, like the one when Jones, Led Zeppelin’s bassist, formed a one-off rhythm section with Jim Keltner, the veteran session drummer who’s played with John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. (“That was a hellacious noise,” recalls Tench, who was there.) Yet Watson, a former member of Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show, says the camaraderie extends offstage.
“Just about everyone I know musician-wise in L.A., I’ve met through Sean and Sara,” he says. “I feel so fortunate that I moved here and got introduced to this immediate circle of friends, which is really hard to do in this town.”
The Watkinses started the Family Hour in 2002 at the behest of Largo’s well-connected owner, Mark Flanagan, who’d already made the club a destination with a popular Friday-night residency by producer and songwriter Jon Brion.
“He was like, ‘No rules, do whatever you want,’” Sean says of the invitation. “Which was very Flanagan of him,” Sara adds, seated next to her brother at a picnic table behind Sean’s house in Highland Park.
Having graduated to concert halls with Nickel Creek, the siblings’ idea for the Largo show, Sara says, “was to get back to what it sounds like when you’re at a bluegrass festival and the festival’s over and a couple of friends are still hanging out backstage, just playing the songs we like to play.”
At that time, the Watkinses were living in San Diego, near where they grew up in Carlsbad, Calif., and would drive north for the show. “We’d play, then go see someone else play, then hang out with Flanagan and Jon Brion at Swingers till three in the morning before driving home,” Sean says, referring to the diner on Beverly Boulevard. (Largo was located on Fairfax Avenue, across from Canter’s Deli, until a 2008 move to a larger space on La Cienega Boulevard.)
In 2003, with plans to make a Nickel Creek album with Rick Rubin, they moved with Thile into a house in Laurel Canyon. “We’d light candles and stay up writing songs, drinking wine,” Sean says. “Such a cliché, but we kind of felt like we had to do it,” Sara says.
The Rubin project didn’t work out, but by then, the siblings had established themselves in L.A.’s music scene; when Nickel Creek broke up in 2007 (before reuniting in 2014), Sean and Sara were both busy with solo careers in addition to the Watkins Family Hour.
Beyond those backstage festival hangs, their models for the Family Hour included public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and “American Music Shop,” which ran on the now-defunct cable network TNN in the early ’90s. Yet crucial to the show’s anything-goes vibe, the siblings say, is Largo’s strict no-recording policy.
“I feel so free knowing that whatever happens — a hit or a miss — is just gonna disappear,” Sean says.
And there definitely have been misses, Sara admits: the time she “face-planted” while trying to remember the lyrics to Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” for instance, or the near-mess they made one night of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which was saved only by Reilly’s donning a tutu to do a few twirls.
Asked to identify a Family Hour grand slam, both reply at once: “Booker T.” The stalwart soul organist dropped in a few years ago and sang a rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that “just felt sacred,” Sara says. “One of those moments where someone puts a lasso around what’s ultimately true in the world.”
For “Vol. II,” which follows an earlier Family Hour album from 2015, the Watkinses gathered a bunch of pals — some of whom they hadn’t seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily halted the Largo gig — this past January at L.A.’s EastWest Studios. Among the LP’s 11 cuts are a lovely version of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” featuring Lucius, a tender “Tennessee Waltz” with Tench on piano and “Remember Me (I’m the One Who Loves You),” a rowdy take on the Texas swing chestnut co-starring Apple; other guests include Browne, Brion, Watson and Madison Cunningham, the last of whom joins Sean to sing the late Elliott Smith’s “Pitseleh.”
Next month, the Watkinses will take a streamlined version of the Family Hour on the road through the end of the year. But before they leave town, they’ll play Largo on Sept. 14 — and then again (and again) once they return home. “We’ll be there as long as there’s an audience that wants us to do it,” Sean says.
Any dream cameos they want to speak into existence?
“Honestly, I don’t like to think about it because that puts a ceiling on things,” Sara says. “I mean, yes, there are legends of songwriting we’d love to have.”
“Randy Newman would be incredible,” Sean says. “Dylan, of course.”
“But it’s not like that happens and then we shut it down,” Sara says, smiling. “Although Randy Newman really would be just too much.”