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Live review: Works Progress Administration at Largo at the Coronet

October 6, 2009 |  1:51 pm

The low-key supergroup moves effortlessly through folk, rock, pop, country and soul selections in a satisfying sampler of the octet's self-titled debut album and some evocative covers.


Judging by the looks of things, the band onstage Monday night at Largo at the Coronet was not the most professional of operations.

One of the singers flubbed so many lyrics that he felt compelled to make a joke about his misfiring synapses. A guitarist broke a string and disappeared for almost an entire song. And the notion of tucking in one's shirt? Apparently outlawed by majority rule.

Yet a group of professionals is precisely what Works Progress Administration is. This sprawling Los Angeles octet, also known as WPA, grew out of the informal roots-music scene at Largo; its members boast some of the most impressive résumés in town.

Keyboardist Benmont Tench has been playing with Tom Petty for more than three decades. Drummer Pete Thomas was a founding member of Elvis Costello's Attractions. Siblings Sean and Sara Watkins (on guitar and fiddle, respectively) used to be two-thirds of the popular bluegrass trio Nickel Creek.

No one in WPA is unaccustomed to the live-music experience, and if you couldn't see that at Largo -- where the outfit celebrated the release of its self-titled debut with a rare all-hands-on-deck performance -- you could definitely hear it.

In songs that pulled equally from country, folk, rock, soul and pop, the group's sound was dense and full-bodied yet had a clarity that revealed the deep-seated craftiness of WPA's arrangements. As a veteran of any field knows, it takes years of effort to appear this effortless.

WPA doesn't have a lead singer; it has four, each of whom took turns fronting the band Monday. Glen Phillips, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket, sang driving folk-rock songs about soured romance and the indiscretions of youth. Sean Watkins did a tender acoustic version of Weezer's "Pink Triangle," which he said reminded him of the old-timey murder ballads he grew up learning how to play.

Bluegrass fixture Luke Bulla edged the music in a more traditional direction, as did Sara Watkins in a stomp-and-holler take on John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days."

Even Tench put in an appearance behind the microphone during his song "The Price," providing croaky counterpoint to Sara Watkins' ethereal lead vocal.

After nearly two hours of music, the members of WPA hadn't sated their song-swapping appetites, so several of them moved over to Largo's cozy Little Room for another round.

Not surprisingly, what had been appealingly casual in the club's larger space turned downright scrappy here, with the Watkins duetting on the great Texas singer-songwriter David Garza's "Kinder" and Phillips guesstimating his way through Randy Newman's "Marie" with help from Tench, who for some reason had donned a platinum-blond wig.

Before a spooky ghost-folk rendition of "Exit Music (For a Film)" by Radiohead, Sean Watkins thanked the crowd for coming, despite the fact that Radiohead's frontman, Thom Yorke, was also in L.A. Monday night, playing an impossible-to-get-into concert at the Orpheum.

"This show was your fallback," Watkins suggested with a laugh, and for some that was probably true. But it actually might have been Yorke's fans who missed out.

--Mikael Wood

Photo: Benmont Tench on piano, from left, Sara Watkins on violin, Luke Bulla on fiddle, Don Heffington on drums, Glen Phillips on guitar, Shawn Watkins on guitar, Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Greg Leisz on pedal guitar. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times