july 2009

'Generally Completely Freaking Awesome'

Sean and Sara Watkins, Glen Phillips and Five Esteemed Comrades In Music Form Roots-Centric WPA and Take It On the Road

The email arrived without preamble or much fanfare on June 17, from Sean Watkins, formerly the guitarist in Nickel Creek with his sister Sara (fiddle) and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. That group sold some five million albums before all the principals moved on to other endeavors—Sean to another solo album and a terrific project with Switchfoot's Jon Foreman under the rubric The Fiction Family (self-titled album released this past January), Sara to her long-awaited and well received self-titled solo debut (produced by Led Zep's John Paul Jones) and Thile to the futuristic bluegrass of The Punch Brothers.

As the letter of June 17 revealed, Sean and Sara are back together, along with six other fairly amazing musicians, in a musical community going by the historically resonant name of WPA (in its original incarnation in 1935, Works Progress Administration—renamed Works Project Administration in 1939—was a component of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's economic stimulus program that put some eight million American back to work between 1935 and 1943 and was assailed by conservatives as a waste of federal dollars—sound familiar?). Described by Sean as "an expandable collective" with one tendril being a trio comprised of Sean, Luke Bulla (who's been with the Jerry Douglas Band and Lyle Lovett) and Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips. The other five members, and their notable affiliations, are Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), two members of Elvis Costello's Imposters in Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher (the latter also of Cracker), Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams), and Sara Watkins. On tour, the group will expand to include bassists Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Neil Finn) and Byron House (Emmylou Harris, Nickel Creek). Sean indicated the plan is to play as an octet, primarily, but adds, "We will often be on the road as a quartet."

"More than anything, I think the basis of the band is about community," Phillips offered in an interview with San Diego's Channel 6 News on the day of WPA's first out of town show, at the city's upscale dining and live music venue, Anthology. "It came out of this idea of some people getting together and making something bigger than any of us could be on our own."

(FYI: When in San Diego, visit Anthology. In addition to what its website describes as a "culinary opus performed by Anthology's kitchen team and inspired by Executive Chef Eric Bauer" featuring farm fresh, locally grown ingredients, its stylish but warm décor and appealing ambiance are well suited for both an intimate dining experience and a memorable night of music. The current calendar shows bookings for some of the most respected contemporary artists in a multitude of genres. In addition to Hawaiian ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro—a favorite of TheBluegrassSpecial.com—other artists who will be making stops at Anthology in the coming months include jazz guitar great Lee Ritenour, the beloved Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans, funk-jazz veterans Mandrill, and celebrated Texas roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo, whose most recent album, Real Animal, wound up on many critics' Best of lists in 2008.)

"The way it came out of this idea of some people getting together and making something bigger than any of us could be on our own."

Sean Watkins in the studio during WPA's album sessions: 'I'm deeply in love with this project.'

According to Phillips, WPA arose not by design but almost by accident. In fact, some of the members had done a short tour together, then assembled the others and began recording, and promptly placed the fruits of their labor on the shelf. "Months later we realized we needed a band name, that we should probably get a manager and we needed to do all this work to get the record out," Phillips said. "But we started with wanting to go in with a bunch of friends and hear what kind of music we'd do—it was all oriented towards that. There was this afterthought, 'What are we gonna call this thing?'"

"I'm deeply in love with this project," Sean says. "The quality of songwriting, exquisite musicianship and pure love of music that the other seven players bring in is something that I would be perfectly content to absorb as a fly on the wall. To actually be playing and singing with them is humbling, inspiring and generally completely freaking awesome."

Watkins appended an appeal to his email, and it reads thus: "So. Please: Come to shows! Talk about us on the interwebs! Sign up for the mailing list (street team, too) and help spread the word! This is an independent release, a labor of love put together by friends without a label or other well-funded sugar daddy, so you are our greatest resource. We hope you'll enjoy being a part of this as much as we do."

Check out WPA's schedule, sign up for its mailing list, and hear some music on its MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/wpaband.

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