Concert review and set list: Sara Watkins (with Sarah Siskind) finds the acoustic sweet spot at the Duck Room, Thursday, April 19

Louis Kwok

To embark on a solo career after being part of a successful group for a number of years is a daunting task. Nevertheless, Sara Watkins seems to be making a smooth transition.

With her former band, Nickel Creek, firmly on hiatus, Watkins has branched out and made several musical connections in supergroups like the Works Progress Administration and performed with the Decemberists on an extensive tour last year. Clearly, she’s having a good time playing and exposing herself to a wide variety of material.

An upbeat Watkins took to the stage at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room sang, played fiddle and guitar, and fully entertained the 125 or so people that came to the basement venue to hear her. Flanked by her older brother Sean on acoustic and electric guitar and Tyler Chester on bass, percussion and guitar, Watkins, wore a simple black dress and brown leather boots. She played a wide spectrum of originals and several cover songs over her 90 minute set. Her voice, light hearted, yet strong, cut through the mix clearly as she tackled the songs easily — a well-honed performer.

While she mixed in a couple of new songs from her forthcoming album due in May, she mostly stuck to material from her first self-titled solo album and other covers. After beginning with an instrumental called, “The Foothills,” the first cover of the set was from the Everly Brothers, “You’re the One I Love,” a song that Watkins recently recorded as a duet with Fiona Apple as a 7″ single for this weekend’s Record Store Day celebration.

Watkins alternated between original songs and covers throughout the rest of the set including three of the five that ended up on her first solo record. She interpreted songwriters that ran the gamut from folk, country, pop and rock. From the gospel of the Louvin Brothers, “River of Jordan,” to the ’60s pop of Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” to the her gorgeous solo rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” Watkins showed that she could be counted on to handle any genre she chooses.

During the John Hartford tune, “Long Hot Summer Day,” Watkins finally let loose a bit from the restrained fiddle she’d played most of the show and dug in and let it fly to have some fun. During the few years since her first album, she has made this song her own. She pandered to the crowd a bit and encouraged them to sing along to the chorus of the song about traveling down the Illinois River. To end the main set Watkins brought out one of the new songs, “Take Up Your Spade,” the last song on the new record. Here she was confident and proud, and it ended up to be one of the strongest performances of the set.

After a minute or two of applause, the three musicians came back for a quick encore. Watkins introduced “Miss My Kisses,” a sweet pop song she wrote with Switchfoot frontman, Jon Forman, who also performs with her brother Sean in a side project called Fiction Family. This fun, lighthearted song gave a perfectly joyful end to a nice evening of music.

Last night’s opener, Sarah Siskind performed a set of slow, introspective folk songs that focused on personal experiences. Dubbing herself as the first half of the “Sara(h) doubleheader, she played her set with her two hollow body guitars — a dark Gibson sunburst she called “Larry” and a blonde named “Tessa” — through a small amp just behind her that exuded a deep, bassy sound. Over her eight-song, 45-minute opening set, Siskind told stories about her life and her songwriting between songs. Before she played the title track to her sophomore 2011 album “Novel,” Siskind advised the audience, “I love St. Louis. Y’all are chill and don’t stress out. You just hang out under the Arch eating barbecue.” A highlight of her show was her tune “Simple Love,” a song Alison Krauss heard her play at a birthday party and nearly won a Grammy. Along with her two albums, she sold her handmade jewelry and chatted with folks after the show.

Sara Watkins set list

The Foothills
You & Me
You’re the One I Love (Everly Brothers)
Lock & Key
Lord Won’t You Help Me (Norman Blake)
Too Much (David Garza)
When It Pleases You (Dan Wilson)
River of Jordan (Louvin Brothers)
Pony (Tom Waits)
21st of May
Different Drum (Michael Nesmith)
My Friend
I’m a Memory (Willie Nelson)
All This Time
Long Hot Summer Day (John Hartford)
Take Up the Spade

Miss My Kisses