Doc Watson is 87 years old, which means two things:
a) He doesn’t pick with the surety and crispness that he once did
b) That really doesn’t matter, ’cause we’re not likely going to get too many more chances to see him play at all
He played the first of his two 50-minute sets at The Egg accompanied by David Holt (banjo/guitar) and electric bassist T. Michael Coleman. After the opening uptempo volley of “Way Downtown,” Holt remarked that Watson had taken his solo to an unfamiliar place – “a kind of Dick Dale solo there.” Now I didn’t hear any particularly surf-like licks, but then again, I haven’t heard Watson play nearly as many times as Holt has, so maybe his ear is a bit more acute in these matters.
At good as he was, Holt just seemed to clutter things up at times – both with his playing and with his emceeing chores – but Watson’s guitar work always managed to shine through on gems like “Shady Grove,” “Deep River Blues” and such instrumentals as “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Bye Bye, Blues.”
Watson leaned into a pair of fine harmonica instrumentals, too, accompanied only by Holt (on bones for “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and hambone for “Rain Crow Bill’).
Watson started the second half of the program all by himself, and at times it was difficult to watch. His voice sounded frail, sometimes faltering, but determined on Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” and Eddy Arnold’s “A Big Bouquet of Roses.” His stab at Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” was shaky at best. Then he launched into “Freight Train” again, only to stop abruptly, saying, “Oh, I already played that one.” More than once, he chastised his own playing by shouting, “Aw, Guitar, now behave.”
Fortunately, he recovered in time to wrap up his solo segment with a strong take on “I Am a Pilgrim.” Watson is still a magnificent, though not as consistent, guitarist. His solos didn’t always come across as clean and crisp as they once did, but just listening to him roll through each little connecting riff with such ease and grace was a sublime experience. After years and years of playing, his fingers simply knew what to do and where to go on the fretboard.
Joined again onstage by Coleman as well as his grandson, Richard Watson on guitar (and later by Holt, too), Watson served up some pretty fine yodeling on the classic blues “Frankie & Johnny,” as well as Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” and Jimmy Rodgers’ nugget, “T for Texas.” Richard Watson’s playing was more centered in classic blues-rock mode, which proved less than empathetic with Doc’s old-school country blues, but the intrusion was minimal.
It was after all, Doc Watson’s show, and he could play whatever he wanted and play with whoever he wanted. Who’s gonna argue with such a living legend? Certainly not me…
DOC WATSON SET LIST
with David Holt (banjo, guitar), T. Michael Coleman (electric bass), Richard Watson (guitar)
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Deep River Blues
Bye Bye Blues
The Cannonball (Solid Gone)
Rain Crow Bill
Sittin’ on Top of the World
The Train That Carried My Baby From Town
DOC WATSON SOLO
For the Good Times
A Big Bouquet of Roses
(Merle Travis instrumental)
I Am a Pilgrim
Frankie & Johnny
Working Man Blues
In the Pines
T for Texas
I Can’t Be Satisfied