“I know they like to play banjos in tune in Kentucky,” remarked Willie Watson before launching into a brittle bit of 1920s, Georgia-born folk-blues called Kitty Puss last night at Natasha’s Bistro. “So I’m just trying to fit in.”
Striking a bond with the audience on hand proved a modest task. While many patrons were likely introduced to Watson through his tenure with the revisionist string band Old Crow Medicine Show, he proved an amiable solo artist who created a distinct performance persona for the delivery of folk staples popularized over the last century by the likes of Ma Rainey, Utah Phillips, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.
During this 80 minute unaccompanied acoustic program, Watson wasn’t interested in the idea of presenting such tunes as rustic museum pieces. His vocal delivery was bright, animated and immediate. On the show opening Take This Hammer, for instance, Watson sounded like Jimmie Rodgers with a monstrous vibrato. There were echoes of bluegrass-inspired high lonesome singing (which would flourish in a more thematic way on the hapless Mexican Cowboy that followed), but Watson’s clean and expressive wails were more akin to gospel.
Of course, rattling around in the folk attic sometimes means wrestling with songs that, by modern standards, seem decidedly non-PC. Watson was apologetic about the mildly misogynistic slant of James Alley Blues, which he defused by essentially playing it for laughs (or, at least, that’s how the audience seemed to take it). But on the far darker Rock Salt and Nails, Watson allowed an unease fueled by the song’s murderous starkness to surface.
That was one of several sobering tunes that quieted patrons that became chattier (especially between songs) as the show progressed. Equally effective in bringing quiet to the room was a beautifully expressive Tattle O’Day, a banjo infused take on The Cuckoo and a devilishly involving encore of See See Rider.
While half of the set was devoted to nine of the 10 tunes from Watson’s 2014 solo debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the remainder highlighted, among other delights, the hilltop gospel of I Belong to the Band and the show closing glee of On the Road Again (the traditional tune refashioned by the Grateful Dead, not the Willie Nelson hit) that gave hope Vol. 2 is headed our way soon.