The Orlando Phil expands horizon with Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and Kurt Vile comes to life on stage 

click to enlarge Sara Watkins

Photo by Mike Dunn

Sara Watkins

This week, the Phil gets unexpectedly fresh and yields the surprise discovery that a new star is in our midst.

THE BEAT

The Orlando Philharmonic is in the middle of an interesting new three-part series at the Plaza Live called Women in Song. The premise is self-explanatory, but the aspect worth special attention is the stylistic ground it spans. As you'd expect, it opened on a classical foot with opera singer Ariadne Greif back in November. Its next step out, however, was the recent performance by noted indie-folk artist Sara Watkins (Feb. 1).

The skilled singer-fiddler rocketed to visibility as a teenager in fresh-faced crossover bluegrass act Nickel Creek but has since built a solo career with its own accomplished legs, with releases on notable labels like New West and Nonesuch. Now grown up, she blends folk, pop and indie like a rootsier, earthier Jenny Lewis.

As it turns out, Watkins' music is overall much more alive on stage. The live setting especially flatters her by unchaining the power in both her voice and the emotions that are often subdued in the studio treatment. And about that voice, it's pure femininity in all its power and lure. It's got plenty of crisp pop appeal but also shows peeks of the kind of authority that was the hallmark of country music's gutsiest grandes dames.

Musically, her own trio covers the ground of a much fuller band, including drums, bass, guitar, piano and the array of instruments that Watkins herself wields (fiddle, guitar, ukulele). But here's where the Orlando Phil comes in. They didn't simply organize the event – they were integrative and even collaborative in the performance, lending the concert a four-piece string section that included Philharmonic music director Eric Jacobsen on cello.

As Watkins herself noted, the local players didn't just render the string sections in some of her songs that usually don't get played in full live – they actually did some special arrangements just for this show. And, of course, it was beautiful, underscoring the grace of her songs in incomparably rich ways.

The Watkins concert showed the possibilities of what an affair like Women in Song can be when curated with this much relevance and executed with this much collaboration. It's a fresh, out-of-the-box face for the Phil. Across classical, folk, indie and pop, it's also a great crossroads of worlds that don't often mingle. Right now, we could maybe all use a little bit more of that.

The best news is that it's not over yet. The next and final edition is on March 1, and it should be similarly good with Aoife O'Donovan of esteemed progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still. If you were at the Sara Watkins show, you got a nice taste of what's in store because O'Donovan made an unannounced cameo for several songs. But as big a surprise as that was, the bigger one is the revelation that this notable music figure married the Phil's music director last summer and is now a part-time local. Maybe if you're lucky, you'll spot her at Publix or something.

Well, Kurt Vile (Jan. 31, the Social) is a full-blown phenomenon now. Good for the indie hero for striking this broad a chord, especially considering that he's not the most linear or immediate of artists.

Vile's left-handed, slacker blend of rock and folk is a stylistically restless thing. Long on mood and tone but filigreed with signature doodles of note and voice, his music is defined more by impression than structure, and is given latitude to sate its wayfaring spirit at will. But whatever crooks, nooks or flights Vile explores, it's always with that trademark loose-limbed gait and golden haze.

Even though Vile's studio craft, intent and texture are notable, his music benefits greatly from the live vigor he showed on stage with the Violators. Such a detail matters when you walk a line between vibe and hypnosis like he does. Instead of the reclined cloud-gazing daydreams his records often conjure, his band's live show is something worth standing for, showcasing both his blue-collar vernacular and arty flourishes in more palpable and rousing ways.

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