Just before Christmas I had the pleasure of chatting to folk singer Willie Watson. Watson who was a founding member of Old crow Medicine Show who went on to inspire such bands as Mumford and Sons, had gone solo some years ago and talked to me about the differences in his career now. One thing that stuck out to me was his stance on Songwriting, though he does write a little bit, his last two records have been full of classic folk covers yet Willie more than most artists makes it all about the song taking the view “whats the point in releasing a record full of mediocre originals when there’s all these fantastic songs already out there for me to play?” I’ve not met many people who have looked at music in that way so I was keen to see how this translated to his live sets and how the crowd received this. So on Friday night I headed into Manchester to check it out!
The harmaleighs were the support act, two girls - one on vocals and guitar and one on vocals and Bass - from Nashville. Their harmonies were beautiful, reminded me of Lennon and Maisy Stella when they sing together on the program Nashville only with a slightly more mature sound to their voices. Their songwriting - though not quite the genre I’m used to - was excellent, they had some very clever lyrics (I particularly liked the line about watching the trees undress). In between songs they spoke freely and openly about their trials and tribulations in life and making it to their first international show! Their sense of humour went down well with the crowd, many of which seemed to already know and love the duo but those like myself who didn’t seemed to quickly warm to them. A lovely start to a great evening.
Then it was on to the main man, Willie Watson came out to a loud cheer from the crowd and jumped straight into his first song Take This Hammer. From the off he had people dancing and bobbing away. His unique vocals and use of sustained notes had the crowd cheering at various points throughout the song and of course this wasn’t an isolated incident as throughout his set he showed off just how powerful his vocals are and even those that had heard him before seemed taken aback by just how good he was. For his second song he put down his guitar and picked up the banjo. A lot of the songs he plays uses the clawhammer technique and leaves space for some epic instrumentals. He played Mexican Cowboy and talked about how even though you haven’t written a song, you can still connect to it just as strongly.
Between songs he gave long speeches which he kept checking was ok with the Manchester crowd who all said it was as they listened intently and even responded on some occasions! When he talked it flowed freely yet didn’t seem planned and his sense of humour shone through as he had the audience in uproar. He changed from the guitar back to the banjo almost every song it seemed and I particularly like it when on some songs he added the harmonica as well. He proceeded to play Samson and Delilah the opening track of Folksinger Volume 2 and as I looked around I noticed much of the audience had now decided to sing along.
He sang a couple of songs that he’d spoken to me about in our interview, his two favourites to play live at the moment. The first one is off Folksinger volume 1 and it’s called Keep It Clean as he said in the interview it has a crazy chorus and the Manchester crowd went crazy for it! The second song he’d mentioned to me is not on any of his records and was the only original he played, well half original he says. He told us the story behind it how he went to his book shelf full of books… most of which he’s never read and found the Black Poet Book and read one about a guy named slim who gets asked by St Peter when he dies to spy on the Devil in hell. It inspired Watson who tried to fit the poem to music. It was a great song called Slim and the Devil.
The highlight of the night for me was when he played Stewball off his first Folksinger record. The way he managed to really get the crowd involved and before the song had begun there was banter between him and the audience. Prior to this he’d been joking about the differences between the US and the UK which had got quite the reaction from his fans. Everyone in the crowd really got behind Stewball though and joined in throughout the whole song. It was a brilliant, foot tapping, good evening of the best folk music sung by one of the finest folk singers around today!