Saturday, May 16, 2009

In Review: Sara Watkins, The Madison Arm

Posted By on May 16, 2009, 10:19 AM

click to enlarge paul_jacobsen.jpg

Paul Jacobsen is always a little self-deprecating about his art. When paid a compliment, the SLC musician never fails to point out his band’s contributions. Paul Jacobsen and the Madison Arm are a unit—their music a team effort. It seemed then entirely fitting for Jacobsen to step onstage at The State Room on Friday and introduce the group as, simply, The Madison Arm. He later gave credit to Ryan Tanner, Scott Wiley and Pat Campbell—but didn’t tell the audience his name. That sort of selflessness is rare in a frontman, and while endearing we’d like to point out that Jacobsen deserves a special shout out now and then.

The Madison Arm kicked off one of The State Room’s final shows before the State Street venue shuts down for the summer while its owners attend to duties at Red Butte, Snowbird and the Utah Arts Festival. They’ll be back, so don’t you forget about them. Paul Jacobsen chatted with the crowd between songs off his Scott Wiley-produced sophomore LP, breaking the ice with jokes and explanations of each track including “Lung,” “Western Skies,” and the heartbreaking closure dedicated to his brother-in-law. The group’s sound was flawless, from Wiley’s pristine cherry-red guitar to Campbell’s expansive, booming drum set, gorgeous three-part harmonies and Tanner’s pump organ—such a “workout”! The Madison Arm converted more than a few folks that night. If you haven’t checked out the immense talent stirring in your own backyard, get ye to a record store ASAP. Why these guys aren’t huge is a mystery.

Sara Watkins headlined the night, stepping onstage with a stripped down crew of bassist and guitarist, brother Sean Watkins who like her grew up playing in their family’s acclaimed bluegrass band Nickel Creek. Watkins tossed around the idea of making a solo record for a good five years before Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones sealed the deal, offering to produce her album—or else! Surprisingly, Watkins didn’t perform that many numbers off the self-titled Nonesuch debut, opting instead to cover Morrissey, Radiohead, Jon Brion and Tom Waits, and to perform renditions of gospel and country standards. Apparently this is a fairly common decision among members of the bluegrass, country and roots-rock community, paying homage to larger-than-life figures before doing your own material justice.

Original or otherwise, each song came alive under her direction. A powerful fiddle-player and singer (her voice reminiscent of the Sundays and Shawn Colvin) she deftly captivated the audience which included a couple of star-struck fans who made themselves seem absolutely bonkers while attempting to interact with their idol. Hopefully, the random crazies didn’t spoil the night for the trio who put on one hell of a soul-stirring show.

If you still haven’t checked out The State Room, tonight Jackie Green appears followed Sunday by the legendary Flatlanders and Tuesday with Carrie Rodriguez. Did I mention you can watch the action while sipping whiskey from a pew?

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