Willie Watson at the Button Factory – Review
On some soft, warm nights in Ireland’s capital, there sits an open air, an inviting aura that tugs lightly on your t-shirt without expectancy; it’s not tangible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t feel it. On such nights, quiet though, Dublin city seems in comparison to the wild weekends (uncouth warriors battling in between beers and burgers, tourists walking a tightrope between beggars and brawlers and the never present saints and scholars), this subtle feeling can draw you affably to a certain location at a particular time and for a brief period all the elements align to form an experience that resonates, resounds into the clement Dublin evening, forms an unforgettable event, albeit just for a fleeting moment.
Willie Watson, ex-Old Crow Medicine Show guitar man turned solo song slinger, took to the stage in the Button Factory on one such Wednesday evening this week for a dirty sweet set, a whirlwind waltz through the American folk songbook. Touring Ireland to promote his debut solo release, the marvellously titled, David Rawlings produced, Folk Singer Vol 1, Watson delivers a collection of songs steeped in the history and tradition of American roots music, bouncing from country to blues, gospel to folk, reworking numbers that influenced him throughout his career, as well as traditional tunes, breathing new life into old favourites.
Guitar, banjo, harmonica and two microphones adorn the stage as Watson walks on alone, dressed in blue jeans, blue shirt, black boots, brown Stetson hat, and without introduction, delves into ‘Take this Hammer,’ an old hip shaking, jaw rattling, railroad folk song with a simple chord progression that provides an honest platform for Watson’s strong, country squeak yodel vocal. His clothes tell a distinct story, but once he opens his mouth to sing, it’s suitably obvious that Watson’s experiences, in some way, reflect the narrative content of the songs he chooses to play; the tone returns an assured authenticity. He picks up the banjo for his next number, explaining ‘you get real sick if you don’t get your daily dose’ and launches into ‘Mexican Cowboy’, a rhythmic, chugging train of a tune that despite its sparse instrumentation delivers a massive aural punch, a dramatic sense of urgency, reinforced by forlorn lyrics that tell of the misfortunes that befall a group of cattle herds ‘in the hills of Mexico’. Watson is comfortable casually switching instruments between songs and dynamic changes don’t disrupt the flow of the set, indeed the rapt audience wait eagerly, alert but quiet in the lull before the next song begins.
Effortlessly Watson slides from bright banjo bounces into slow sleazy acoustic guitar walkers like the 12-bar blues of ‘Mother Earth’, telling a solemn tale about the inevitability of death, all the while in complete control of the narrative voice, commandingly strong in his authorial style. Channelling early Dylan, with shades of Townes Van Zandt, strongly influenced by the blues of Memphis Slim and Leadbelly, Watson has an interesting guitar style, playing quite near to the bridge, the noise created; a nasally, resonant twang. Soloing within the melody of the song, he seemingly plays both rhythm and lead at the same time, keeping listening ears eager and expectant, like on Charley Jordan’s ‘Keep it Clean’, a song Watson described, with a wry smile, as having ‘a bit of dirt’ in it.
Though a deft guitar player with a distinct style, when Watson picks up the banjo and plays in the ‘clawhammer’, old time style, he is at his most potent. A rousing rendition of ‘The Cuckoo’ possessed a remarkable sense of rhythm and movement, preventing stasis; feet and toes tapping and hands clapping out the beat whilst ‘Stewball’, a Leadbelly version of a song about a racehorse (a piece some claim has its origins in Ireland), required audience participation at the express request of the man onstage, sing-along’s ensued as Watson beat a lazy line on the banjo. Finishing off his set with ‘C.C. Rider’, called for from the crowd, including a restrained, earthy harmonica solo and a version of ‘On the Road Again’, Watson saluted his audience and departed the stage. A consummate performer, a complete entertainer, a grit golden voice, so easy and at home playing solo in front of a large group of people. On some soft, warm nights in Ireland’s capital, there sits an open air, an inviting aura. On Wednesday night, it was because of Willie Watson.
Review by Andy Guyett