Sean Watkins,
Let It Fall
(Sugar Hill, 2001)

It's not often that a young musician's group produces a five-star, Grammy-nominated rookie album, and the next year his first solo release equals his band's in quality, but Sean Watkins pulls off the trick with Let It Fall. It's a wonderful album from start to finish, with the young guitarist/mandolinist/composer earning his props across the board.

Watkins has assembled a great group of musicians, including Nickel Creek bandmates Chris Thile (mandolin) and sister Sara Watkins (fiddle), along with Nashville Cats Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Todd Phillips on bass, as well as several other fine artists. But Watkins is the star from the first rousing track, "Neo's Song," on which he demonstrates some mad phat picking skilz. While possibly inspired by our favorite Matrix character, there's no doubt who inspired the second track and the only vocal. Watkins readily admits that one of his major influences is Toad the Wet Sprocket, and the lead vocal on "Let It Fall" is sung by none other than Glen Phillips. Phillips does it beautifully, and it's a song that John Gorka, Pierce Pettis or a dozen more top-notch contemporary folk artists would be glad to claim. The instrumental accompaniment is marvelously sympathetic, with Chris Thile's mandolin sounding as sensitive and moving as anyone playing the instrument today.

"January Second" is slow and wistful, while "Ferdinand the Bull" is filled with fast, interweaving lines, fine fiddle work by Sara Watkins and tight harmonies between guitar and mandolin (with Watkins apparently overdubbing both). It's fun, quirky, exciting music -- most definitely not your daddy's bluegrass. The mood changes with "Cloudbreak," a pensive and introspective guitar solo, and remains low key with "The Birth," primarily a mandolin/fiddle duet between brother and sister that's almost classical in form, an exquisite piece of chamber music.

"The Ant and the Ant" gets us back to more traditional territory. It's a rollicking tune in which everyone shines, but it doesn't have the distinctiveness of the rest of the compositions. It's the kind of newgrass that's starting to sound a little old-fashioned. Such can't be said of "The Orange Autumn Days," which is a stately and graceful reflection on its subject. The title of the next tune, "Nostalgic," makes an old geezer wonder what a person so young has to be nostalgic about, but it's a lovely composition whose lines give a sense of lightness and flight.

The final track, "Over the Waterfall," has a simple but beautiful theme that provides a dignified and soulful ending to the album ... or it would if it weren't for the bonus track after a long period of silence, a few minutes of le jazz hot, a Les Paul-style trio of guitar, drums and bass that shows yet another side of the versatile young Mr. Watkins.

The Bluegrass Taliban may cluck disapprovingly at this album: it ain't really bluegrass as dictated by them, and (horror of horrors) there are no rough edges. The playing is impeccable, and the musicians all blend together effortlessly to create an overall warm and encompassing sound. You'd have to be a tin-eared jackass not to appreciate, admire and love this CD. Sean Watkins and his cohorts are creating wonderful new music of the highest imaginable caliber. What makes their youth even more exciting is the expectation of many more decades of such musical creativity. Keep 'em coming, Sean -- we'll be listening.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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