Real Music Club at The Errigle, Belfast
3rd November 2016

Sara Watkins is no stranger to these shores and has played on a number of occasions for The Real Music Club. Last January she played for a captive audience with Aoife O’Donavan and Sarah Jarosz in the “I’m with her” collective and there were a few in the audience who had seen her on those occasions.

To my mind, Thursday evening’s performance was the best yet.

The night began with the music of Bap Kennedy being played through the PA system and resident Real Music Club compere John McCart paying tribute to the much-loved figure. Bap was revered by world renowned artists such as Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, and the everyday man who bought tickets for his shows and purchased albums with Ten Past Seven, Energy Orchard, and under his own name. He has made so many musical memories, and his songs will play on as a lasting legacy.

The opening act tonight was Junior Johnston who confessed to being very nervous and at times it showed. However, he played and sang a very fine set including a number of softer numbers; the pick of which were ‘Mayfly Blues’ and ‘The Last Bee Keeper’. Throw in a great cover of the Proclaimers’ ‘Sunshine On Leith’, and a quick stand up routine on the perils of gambling, and the slightly less than capacity audience really warmed to him.

And so to Sara.

The 35-year-old Californian, Sara Watkins, has been playing from the age of 8. Singer-Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, a founding member of bluegrass stalwarts Nickel Creek, she has played with Jackson Browne, The Decembrists, and the aforementioned “I’m With Her”.

Tonight, ostensibly here to promote her new album, we were served a smorgasbord of her talents. Beginning with a single plucked violin Her strong melodic voice hit the ground running on ‘Too Much’.

Obviously playing by herself, the recorded arrangements of her songs had to be tailored to a solo setting. Yet the songs lost little in this transformation. Indeed some, such as the lovely ‘Take Up Your Spade’ were enhanced by the pared back accompaniment.

The vulnerability and delicacy inherent in her voice shone through as she implored us to:

Give thanks for all that you’ve been given. Give thanks for who you can become. Give thanks for each moment and every crumb. Take up your spade and break ground.

Any lack of Electric guitar on the solo version of the album’s ‘Move Me’ was more than compensated by her rich honeyed voice. A fantastic player on violin and ukulele, her guitar skills too were well displayed throughout the night as she swiftly interchanged instruments with little fuss between songs.

An easy going and friendly stage presence, she had the attentive crowd totally on her side from note one.

The lovely ‘Like New Year’s Day’ was introduced as an homage to the south Californian desert which played an important part in her early life. Her ease on stage was very much in evidence, as she effortlessly varied the sound from soft country shuffle to folk and bluegrass to rock singalong. Evidenced on the charming John Hartford cover ‘Long Hot Summer Day’ and old Nickel Creek favourite, ‘Anthony’.

She was informed by audience members that various compatriots of hers that she had named-dropped or songs whom she had covered had also played Belfast – Anais Mitchell, Steve Earle, Patti Griffin. One wit at the bar suggested Buddy Holly had also played here. Buddy Holly in The Errigle? She played his ‘Early In The Mornin”.

It was an evening full of highlights. The title track of the new release ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’ with beautifully played reverb guitar, ‘The Truth Won’t Set Us Free’ and a delicately played acoustic version of ‘You And Me’ among them.

Really this was an evening enjoyed from start to finish by all. An evening great in all the right ways.