Mitch Watkins is essential to Austin, Texas music. It’s hard to imagine this town, and its music scene, without him. In his on and off 40 plus years on the Austin music scene, Mitch has made everyone he’s played with, produced, and mentored, sound better and grow as an artist. The first recording below was made with a handheld recorder last night at The Elephant Room in Austin. Virtuoso bassist John Fremgen and I joined Mitch, as we have many times in the past, for some holiday-flavored jazz and simple, beautiful music, like the track below. That love of space, of weaving beautiful sound canvases with his guitar, is a hallmark of Mitch Watkins’ career. He can do anything on a guitar, but, for me, it’s in his consistent choice to do less than he can do, and to serve rather than dominate the music, that I witness the heart of a master musician.
I first heard Mitch in 1980 with the instrumental quintet, Passenger. That electrifying band was an all-star group of Austin heavies — Mitch (guitars), Roscoe Beck (basses), Bill Ginn (keyboards), Steve Meador (drums), and Paul Ostermeyer (saxophones). They all became musical mentors and friends to me, chiefly Mitch and Steve, providing opportunity and guidance that vaulted me forward and into full participation in the Austin music scene at a point when I was struggling with self-doubt. They were, and are, living examples in my life of Robert Frost’s description of a mentor – “not a teacher, but an awakener.”
Mitch’s artist credits show the breadth of his musical reach and include work with singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, K.T. Oslin, Jennifer Warnes, Abra Moore and Bob Schneider, as well as jazz artists Jack Walrath, Bennie Wallace, Barbara Dennerlein, Paul Glasse, and John Fremgen. He plays with a producer’s mind, embracing the entire landscape of a song. As a producer/multi-instrumentalist, he has guided many stunningly beautiful recordings, including Tina Lear’s The Road Home and Abra Moore’s On The Way, as well as critically-acclaimed albums of his own.
Two of my favorite musical memories involve the initial Mitch Watkins Group, a short-lived but inspired quartet that included Mitch, Paul Ostermeyer, bassist Steve Zirkel, myself on drums, and, occasionally, Austin stalwart James Fenner on percussion. During the closing set at a performance at Mikell’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, blues-legend Stevie Ray Vaughn joined us, sending the energy level through the roof and captivating club owner Pat Mikell who sat starry-eyed (actually, we all were) as we all chatted with SRV after the gig. A few weeks later, we opened for Spyro Gyra at the Austin Opry House in 1985, and our brief set earned a huge standing ovation and a quick trip off the stage as the crew removed our gear faster than we could finish our bows to the crowd. That original MWG never released a recording, but there are some great studio tracks that never saw the light of day. I’ve included one live track below, recorded off the mixing console at a performance at the Zilker Hillside Theatre in Austin’s Zilker Park, 1984. The sound is rough and the bass a bit distant, but the vibe is there. In contrast to Silent Night (above), it gives you a taste of another of the many sides of Mitch Watkins.
It was a moment in time when that thing I said above about intentionally doing less than what he can do is a little less apropos. But as we all know, now and then, it is necessary to bring the heat. It also reminds me of just how much surplus energy we all had when we were still in our 20s. Enjoy.