Sara Watkins at Plaza Live

On Wednesday I went to the Plaza Live on Bumby to see Orlando Philharmonic’s Women in Song series featuring Sara Watkins. The series features female artists playing with members of the Orlando Philharmonic.

I had been looking forward to this show for several weeks; Watkins is easily one of my favorite artists. She’s an alum of Nickel Creek, a band that is possibly the single biggest musical influence I have, and her three solo albums, “Sara Watkins” (2009), “Sun Midnight Sun” (2012), and “Young in All the Wrong Ways” (2016), are all fantastic.

I’d seen her play as part of Nickel Creek live three times over the years, but had never seen her solo. The Plaza is a fairly intimate venue; there were several times during the show where someone in the crowd would say something to her at essentially normal talking volume and she’d look up from tuning, smile and respond.

It overall felt like a rather stripped down show, appropriate for a songwriter showcase, with Watkins on the violin, guitar, and ukulele, with another guitar player and a drummer (who was also simultaneously playing the bass lines on a keyboard.) The addition of a quartet from the Orlando Phil on about five songs was a treat and they added, as Watkins described, either arrangements from her albums that she doesn’t usually get to have live or brand new arrangements that had not been performed or recorded before. Their additions were tasteful and complementary. I’m very drawn to strings in live performances, having my own pretensions of being an amateur violinist, so between Watkins and the Philharmonic I was in a good place.

(Side note: I realize constantly referring to her as “Watkins” sounds a little cold and reporterly, but at the risk of being weird, I almost feel as if calling her “Sara” is a familiarity I’m not entitled to as a complete stranger. Well, almost complete, more on that later)

She mostly played songs from her new album, with “Say So,” “Young in all the Wrong Ways,” and “Move Me” being standouts for me. Her singing and violin work were top notch, unsurprisingly, but the songwriting and the delivery were what really stuck out to me. She has an almost soft-spoken sort of charisma at the microphone, an energetic appeal when she’s on her violin, and an emotive and beautiful singing voice.

The “Young in All the Wrong Ways” album has what I think is masterful songwriting. The tracks are by turns thoughtful, poignant, playful, and personal without being maudlin or self-indulgent. It has become my favorite new music of the last year, by a pretty strong margin. So go get a copy here. (Also worth checking out is her “Watkins Family Hour” album, a collection of folk/country/bluegrass covers featuring Sara and her brother Sean Watkins as well as many other collaborators. A very fun album.)

I got to meet Sara Watkins briefly after the show. She was set up at her merchandise booth greeting people and signing autographs. As I walked up, my friend Mike, in front of me in the line, said to her “This is Matt Juliano. He’s in a local band called Beemo and he plays the mandolin.” I kind of froze up at this point. I thought about the caliber of musician she was and the caliber of the mandolinists she was used to playing with and I thought to myself "No...By comparison, for all practical purposes I most emphatically do *not* play the mandolin.” (But I appreciate the shout out, Mike :) )

As I handed over my program for her to sign, I thought about how odd it was that I was about to interact with someone who had been such an influence on me, and whose career I’ve followed for well over a decade, and I had the surprising (to me at the time) / not-surprising (to a normal human being) realization that Sara Watkins was a real person that I was about to talk to.

Unfortunately I had this realization just as she asked me what my name was again. And for a split second, I wasn’t quite sure. I did manage to say “Matt;” I’m not sure if the pause was noticeable. She asked if it was two “T”s or one, and after answering I said something sort of non impressive like “I really love your work; you’re one of my favorite artists.” She smiled, thanked me at we took a picture. It was a little bit surreal. I’d never met an artist that was musically important to me before. I told myself that she’s probably encountered much more tongue tied and odd characters than me in her career, but I still felt amusingly stupid. It helped that she was gracious and very very nice.

There’s that phrase “Don’t meet your heroes.” I don’t agree, but I think it should be “Don’t meet your heroes if you’re worried about looking like a low-grade bumbling fool.” :)


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