Doc Watson shared old stories and masterful picking at the Birchmere.
Doc Watson shared old stories and masterful picking at the Birchmere. (By Allen Aycock For The Washington Post)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Doc Watson

"That's some pretty pickin', son," said Doc Watson to banjoist-guitarist David Holt at the Birchmere on Sunday night. As it turned out, Holt had countless reasons to return the compliment during the sold-out performance.

Indeed, the 84-year-old Watson was in terrific form, whether flat-picking through a delightfully lyrical arrangement of "Bye Bye Blues," using a thumb pick to propel a bouncy rendition of "Deep River Blues" or crisply trading licks with his grandson, guitarist Richard Watson.

Thanks to Holt's gentle prodding, many of the tunes the guitar legend performed were prefaced by an amusing or sentimental anecdote, including a few that stemmed from Watson's childhood reminiscences of listening to the family Victrola. Early recordings of Fiddlin' John Carson, Louis Armstrong and Mississippi John Hurt still inspire Watson's performances, and thanks to Holt's nimble contributions on clawhammer banjo and National steel guitar (plus electric bassist T. Michael Coleman's unfussy support), the opening set reverberated with evocative tones.

Richard Watson was featured during the second set, playing alongside his grandfather and Coleman. The younger Watson's jazz sensibility was unmistakable, particularly when he used the upper register of his cutaway guitar to brightly embellish "Summertime." All four musicians gathered for the finale. At one point the pickin' party turned into a rockabilly-inspired romp, with Doc leading the way on "Blue Suede Shoes." He didn't all get the lyrics right during the show, but the sound of his weathered voice and deeply rooted guitar always rang true.

-- Mike Joyce

Regina Carter Sextet

It's always a bit disconcerting to find jazz musicians glancing at sheet music, especially during a performance largely devoted to jazz and pop standards. But the Regina Carter Sextet nonetheless maintained a high swing quotient throughout its final set at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Friday night.

Besides, the paper-shuffling could be forgiven on the grounds that the ensemble, augmented by guest vocalist Carla Cook, showed no interest in routine, B-flat arrangements. Whether revisiting "St. Louis Blues" or a Rodgers and Hart classic, the group took full advantage of an unusual array of instruments: violin, clarinet, accordion, piano, bass, drums and Cook's splendid voice.

As a result, even the most familiar tunes were laced with colorful textures and thematic tangents, with the focus shifting between chamber jazz atmospherics and unfettered swing. Violinist Carter has always excelled at making these kinds of transitions, and to hear her do so in this setting, with clarinetist Darryl Harper and accordionist Gary Versace adroitly following suit, was particularly enjoyable.

Though much of the performance was inspired by music that appears on Carter's latest CD, "I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey," two exceptions stood out: a haunting arrangement of "Oblivion," composed by tango legend Astor Piazzolla; and "Black Bottom Dance," an expansive, stop-time Carter-penned piece commissioned by the Lincoln Center. Boisterously evoking Detroit nightlife in the big band era, Carter's contribution eventually spiraled into a dynamic showcase for her rhythm section, featuring pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Alvester Garnett.

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