Sean Watkins keeps busy.
His Nickel Creek bandmates, fiddle-playing sister Sara Watkins and MacArthur genius award-winning mandolinist Chris Thile, regularly garner attention for their solo projects, but Sean Watkins seems quite content juggling various projects from a support position, even though he has five solo albums and numerous tours to his credit. Add all the fiddle and bluegrass tunes he grew up hearing and playing in San Diego County, and he has a supersized song bag to pull from.
It’s been a long, twisty road since Watkins reaped awards with Nickel Creek at a mid-1990s bluegrass festival at Santa Anita Race Track, and longer still since they played their first gig at a pizza parlor in San Diego when Watkins was 12. Part of his appeal is his calm, grounding presence — the kind that comes with the freedom of knowing you can basically do what you want because you’ve already proved yourself in myriad ensembles for a few generations of audiences. Onstage, the beefy guitarist is a strong, conversationally understated player who gives his strings a workout — check out the scratches on his Gibson LG2 acoustic, a gift from Jackson Browne. (You can drop names like Browne’s in interviews, and not sound like you’re namedropping, when you’ve been performing for three decades and can play their instrument even better than they can.)
Road miles and years have deepened Watkins’ voice somewhat, but he still sounds like the boy next door, assuming the boy next door can sound sweet yet earthy, high-lonesome style. Listen to the harmonic construction, instrumental sophistication and above all the engaging melodies of his songs and his youthful bluegrass foundation can still be discerned, although he isn’t constrained by genre distinctions.
Guessing what he might share with the audience at his York Manor show next Thursday is part of the night’s attraction. Nickel Creek chestnuts? A favorite by Works Progress Administration bandmate Glen Phillips? The gospel call “Tribulations” from 2016’s “What to Fear”? Something more pop-leaning from his 2006 release “Blinders On” or his Fiction Family collaborations with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman? A free-spirited jam on a Bob Dylan classic a la Watkins Family Hour? The range of possibilities is eclectic and broad.
Kensington & the Bluegrass Situation present Sean Watkins & Friends, plus Matt the Electrician and Motor Sales at York Manor, 4908 York Blvd., Highland Park, 7-11:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18; $12 adv/$15 at thedoor. Info: (323) 543-1338. Tickets available at eventbrite.com/e/sean-watkins-friends-matt-the-electrician-motor-sales-tickets-59142525887?aff=eblast&mc_eid=7c15c03dd5&mc_cid=b626eb05a6. Seanwatkins.com, theyorkmanor.com