At eighty-seven years of age, legendary guitarist Doc Watson still maintains a touring schedule. Usually when a musician of his stature continues to perform this late into his career, he begins to be described as a “musical treasure.” Often, those are code words for “lost his chops.” I tell you what, Doc has certainly not lost his chops, although to be fair, his playing does not have the same sureness or consistency as it once had.
Elisa and I saw Doc play in Albany, New York at The Egg on Sunday, August 1. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Doc perform. Unfortunately, Albany, a little over three hours by car to the west, is as close to New England as Doc’s tour would get. Our drive took us through Wilmington, Vermont, where we’d seen a Doc Watson show over twenty years ago at Wilmington’s Memorial Hall.
We had an early dinner in Albany at the New World Bistro Bar (review here), and then we headed downtown to Empire Plaza, where The Egg is located. The main amphitheater at The Egg is called the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre. Despite being inside a structure that typifies the kind of architectural brutalism popular in the 1970s, the Hart Theatre has wonderful acoustics and is quite beautiful inside. Seating capacity is 982.
Doc appeared with musician/storyteller David Holt and bassist T. Michael Coleman backing him up. During the second half of the show, his grandson, Richard Watson, sat in for a number of tunes. The show opened with the bluegrass standard Way Downtown, with Holt playing banjo. Then Holt introduced the next tune, Shady Grove, a song that Doc said was one of his wife’s favorites back when they were “courting.”
David Holt was tasked with doing many of the song introductions, and it was a mixed blessing. I appreciated hearing the back story on some of the songs that Holt provided, but he also ended up being a bit of a barrier between Watson and his audience. The best of it was when Doc would interrupt Holt and take over, providing some tidbit such as how he first heard a particular song. After Shady Grove, the trio worked through a very nice rendition of the fiddle tune Whiskey Before Breakfast, followed by Little Sadie and then one of the highlights of the evening, Deep River Blues, a song I never get tired of hearing. After that they played Bye Bye Blues, which is a tune I don’t think I’ve heard before, and then the Carter Family classic, Solid Gone.
Doc laid his guitar across his lap at this point and pulled out a harmonica, which was the first instrument he learned to play as a boy. He played a very nice version of Fisher’s Hornpipe, accompanied by Holt on the bones, and then Raincrow Bill, which passed as the comedy segment for the evening, with Holt doing knee-slapping, hand clapping, and cheek popping as accompaniment.
At this point, Holt switched over to playing slide on a steel guitar for a trio of tunes, Sittin’ on top of the World, a Holt-penned tune called Slow Food, and finally, The Train that Carried My Girl From Town.
After intermission Doc came out to play a short solo set. He talked about knowing fellow North Carolinian Elizabeth Cotton and then started off with her signature tune Freight Train, and at each instrumental break he played with a different and distinct style of fingerpicking. After that he played a couple of tunes that I don’t think are a part of his standard repertoire, For the Good Times, by Kris Kristofferson, and A Big Bouquet of Roses, by Eddie Arnold. Both of these songs are about love (or the lack of it) that falls a little short, and Doc pointed that out in his intros. His playing was a bit labored on these tunes–I don’t think he was as familiar with them as he was with the rest of the evening’s material. He finished off his solo set with a pair of songs associated with Merle Travis: an instrumental I really like and cannot recall the name of, and then the gospel spiritual, I Am a Pilgrim.
Coleman and Richard Watson, Doc’s grandson, joined Doc on stage at this point, and I particularly enjoyed the songs during this part of the concert, as Doc’s playing was fast and sure, and he had good command of the material. He started off with the traditional song Frankie and Johnny, followed by Workin’ Man Blues, In the Pines, and the Jimmie Rodgers tune, T for Texas.
David Holt brought his steel string back onto the stage and the four of them finished off the concert with Walk On, John Henry, Down Yonder, and the Mississippi John Hurt song, I Got the Blues and I Can’t Be Satisfied, with the lyrics altered somewhat–Doc’s version doesn’t have the singer of the song murdering anyone.
My wife and I really enjoyed this show. Doc’s playing (and his voice) are still amazingly strong for someone of his age. He seems to enjoy performing, and while his set was based off of a core set of tunes that he often plays when he’s accompanied by David Holt, he also pulled out some less frequently heard tunes as well. It was a real joy to experience him in concert.