Lightnin’ Willie

The Old Crow Medicine Show founder goes solo, and Martin Longley catches him pickin’ banjo in Kings Heath.

Willie Watson
Hare & Hounds
August 4th

Sandwiched in-between the two Trembling Bells gigs was Willie Watson, also a purveyor of folk music, but of a completely purist, acoustic character.

This New York singer, guitarist, banjoman and occasional harmonica tooter was a founder member of the Old Crow Medicine Show, but has lately taken to stripping back his sound to the troubadour basics. He made his solo debut in 2014 with Folk Singer Volume 1, and he’s promising a second shot of hardcore classics, coming soon to your virtual record store.

Nearly all of the songs in Watson’s present repertoire are readings of established oldies, whether they spring from country, blues, gospel or merely mainline folksiness. This Hare’n’Hounds gathering was intimately full, with every table and seat-row filled, but the room still not being overly crowded. This was a group of specialist punters who were ear-cocking their way through the 90 minute set, savouring the authentic historical reproduction of this zingy songbook.

Watson is so distilled as a performer that the experience was very much like time-warping back to the 1920s, or the 1960s version of the 1920s, or when he actually delivered an original, the 2015 incarnation of multiple decades. Some of the numbers could have stepped out of the 1950s, but whichever decade was the source, this was the naked holler’n’string-tingle of old time days. Watson’s voice is athletically mobile, highly expressive in its flight, as he whooped, twanged, cried and drawled, loading up the emotional resonance.

His guitar and banjo playing were aggressively attacking, a spray of hurtle-picked notes and phrases. Rarely do we hear a banjo proponent who can flash through such involved five-string riff-showers with such accuracy and delineation. Watson kept the night entertaining with his good-natured, crowd-confronting chat, his one lack being a seeming reluctance to talk about the songs, tales behind their history, and who penned them.

The ditties flashed by in droves, often less than two minutes long. Watson included many of those featured on his album, a notable highlight being Keep It Clean, an old Charley Jordan blues from the 1930s, and then the more familiar Lead Belly-identified trad classic Midnight Special. Another hot one was the similarly traditional oldie Stewball, garnering an audience singalong.

Just about the only criticism to make was that Watson should have split his show into two parts, giving the audience a break. A 90 minute set of solo shorties did eventually become an onslaught of song material, without any pause for digestion.