Sunday, May 20, 2007

A night with Doc Watson @ The Overture Center, Madison, WI

Wow! This was one performance I was glad not to have missed. I had been eagerly awaiting this day since the announcement in early 2006. I was able to score a pair of front row tickets for me and my lovely wife in the main hall at the Overture Center (how I got these is a story for another day!) For those of you who have not attended a music performance at the Overture - redeem the situation! The sound is fantastic and the hall itself is beautiful, if somewhat spartan looking. You will not be disappointed!

On to the show review... At 84 years old, Arthel 'Doc' Watson is still going strong as a freight train. His songs and music conjure up all sorts of emotions in me and transport me to place that seems so familiar yet never experienced.

It was a fine night of story-telling and finger-picking by the gentlemen from down south. The show started at 8 pm with Doc Watson being led onstage by David Holt. While I am quite familiar with Doc's music (through his various LP's - a treasured part of my collection) and having seen him play with Sam Bush and others at Bonnaroo 2004 (listen to the set here), David Holt's music was an unknown entity to me. Needless to say, not only is he a guitarist worthy of being on-stage playing with the bluegrass legend, he also did an excellent job of getting Doc to share some of his life stories and the history behind his music.

One such story is of how Doc and his brothers came to own their first record player (or a Victrola as they used to be called then!) The 6-year old Doc and his brothers labored at an uncle's sawmill for four days to earn a little pedestal-mounted record player along with the 50 records it came with (The uncle had upgraded to a floor-standing model - maybe he was an early day audiophile!) It was the music on these records that Doc heard and learned to play and sing. As Doc put it "the records were the real treasure."

Doc and David Holt started with some bluegrass standards such as Shady Grove and Deep River Blues that had the audience in rapture from the very first note. Doc was playing a Bourgeois Vintage D guitar and frequently showed a sense of humor in his interactions with the guitar - "Now behave yourself", "Be good now" while tuning or trying to get the right note. (It should be noted that Doc was not playing his regular guitar - the Gallagher G50.) In contrast, David Holt had a trio of stringed instruments (a Bourgeois Vintage D, a banjo and a shiny National steel guitar) by him and switched through instruments as the set progressed. He kept time with Doc as they went through the unrehearsed set and when prompted by Doc to "take it away , son" displayed his flat-picking prowess and singing abilities.

"The hall has just the right reverb to it" commented Doc Watson on the setting. Both artists were highly appreciative of the audience. At one point, David announced they would be signing their albums at the end of the show. Upon hearing that and at the risk of missing out the beginning of the second set, come intermission and I raced home to pick up my collection of vintage Doc on vinyl. Thankfully, made it back to my seat in time clutching my 'special 6 pack' of vintage Doc on vinyl. The second set started with Doc solo on stage. He began with a couple of slow blues and gospel numbers before he had his grandson Richard join him on stage. Richard Watson (Merle's son) seemed quiet, almost shy on stage but did not hold back playing his guitar. The duo jammed for a while and did a couple of blues numbers before David Holt joined them on stage with his guitars.

There were plenty more songs and stories that Doc delighted the audience with that night. Doc sang the blues, the gospel, mountain ballads and country songs. He flat picked and finger picked. He yodeled and he played the harmonica. He told stories about the pastor from Deep Gap, North Carolina. He fondly remembered playing music with and enjoying the 'slow' home cooking of Elizabeth Cotten, the folk and blues singer and guitarist, while on tour in Washington D.C.

The trio wrapped up at around 11 pm with a fast-paced finger pickin' jam on their guitars. No encores, for the duo were off to the lobby to sign their CD's. With hundreds waiting patiently in line, I felt guilty standing there with 6 records for Doc to sign when David Holt noticed them in my hands and called out "Doc, he's got your records for you to sign." I was lucky to spend a few minutes with the two talking about the records. Here's what Doc had to say when he was signing the Reflections - Chet Atkins & Doc Watson record released by MCA in 1980 - "I enjoyed making this record with Chet Atkins. I got to know him well during the making of the record."

Unfortunately, I did not have a pen on me (some reporter!) so do not have the entire set list here. Next time, I will be better prepared. Some of the songs played on Saturday night included Shady Grove, Deep River Blues, Telephone Girl, The Cat's Back, Corrina Corrina, Way Downtown, Freight Train, Louise, Chicago Blues, St. James Infirmary, Stand By Me, Slow Cookin' and many more.

Sorry, no pictures from the show. The Overture Center enforces a strict no cameras or recording allowed policy inside the hall. However, I did manage to get a picture of Doc and David Holt signing my records.

All in all, one of the best shows I have ever been to.

- malliman/AM


Anonymous said...

Great review; it's a shame I missed this show.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I too loved the show, Doc conjured up all kinds of Appallacian ghosts. I think Alan Lomax smiled in his grave.