Sara Watkins is best known as a member of Nickel Creek, a trio that for nearly two decades took bluegrass into new terrains and in front of younger audiences.
These days, Watkins, 35, is a solo artist for whom bluegrass is more of a side dish than an entrée.
Friday night, in the Garage at Knuckleheads, Watkins, with assistance from a two-piece band, showed a crowd of more than 400 how she has evolved from her days with Nickel Creek into a singer-songwriter and musician with a voice and style of her own.
She is touring on her third and latest album, “Young In All The Wrong Ways,” released in July, and her set list included nine of its 10 tracks. She opened with three of those: “Say So,” the melodic, mid-tempo ballad that started the show, then “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” a swinging country shuffle with a Dolly Parton vibe, and “Without a Word,” a folky, introspective ballad with some Patty Griffin in its DNA that showed off Watkins’ agile and expressive voice.
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Watkins, who played fiddle, guitar and ukulele, was backed by a two-man band: David Garza on guitar and bass; and Michael Libramento on drums and bass. Throughout the set, Garza embroidered her songs with colorful but tempered guitar filigrees.
She tossed the Nickel Creek fans a bone, singing “Destination,” a track from the Grammy-nominated “A Dotted Line,” released in 2014 when the band emerged from a seven-year hiatus. She also went back to her nascent bluegrass days, when she performed at events like the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., delivering two fiddle instrumentals in the middle of her set.
Watkins is a seasoned and entertaining performer, at-ease on stage, talking just enough to provide a glimpse of her personality and wit. Before “Holidays With You,” she half-apologized for writing a holiday song, but told the crowd: “It’s OK. You don’t have to be holiday lovers, but I bet you take the time off.” After a train rumbled by, she had her audience mimic a few blasts of its horn.
During her cover of Robert Earle Keen’s “Feelin’ Good Again,” after she flubbed the lyrics, she stopped it and restarted the song from the beginning of the verse because it was “my favorite part of the song.”
That was one of two covers. The other: John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days.”
After a warm rendition of “Take Up Your Spade,” a ballad that uses gardening and “pruning and weeding” as metaphors for rebirth and renewal, she lit into “Move Me,” an anthem from the “Young” album that is a strident petition for changes of attitude and heart.
She closed with “Tenderhearted,” a waltz about kindness, grace and those “who let life overflow,” which she dedicated to social workers or anyone who volunteers.”
It’s a folk ballad with a light country accent. It has little in common with Watkins’ Nickel Creek days but is a clear indication of the terrain in which this evolving songwriter and musician has taken up her spade.
Say So; The Truth Won’t Set Us Free; You and Me; Without a Word; Too Much; Young in All the Wrong Ways; fiddle instrumentals; Long Hot Summer Days; Destination; Invisible; Feelin’ Good Again; The Holidays With You; Like New Year’s Day; One Last Time; Take Up Your Spade; Move Me; Tenderhearted