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Joyce Endee

Star-studded musicians make up new group called WPA

Appearing at Stone Mountain Arts Center, Jan. 10

Contributors to the WPA debut album include: Greg Leisz (holding his knee – various instruments), Sean Watkins (acoustic guitar), Glen Phillips (center- electric guitar), Pete Thomas (behind Glen - drums), Luke Bulla (violin), Benmont Tench (piano), Sara Watkins (fiddle). Sean, Glen and Luke will be appearing with Jerry Roe on drums and Sebastian Steinberg on bass at the Stone Mountain Arts Center on Jan. 10. (WPA Photo). (click for larger version)
January 07, 2010
Playing at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, the group may be newly formed, but their talent spans generations. Works Progress Administration is known as a "Supergroup," a label coined in the 1960s to describe a musical group whose performers are already famous from having performed individually or in other groups.

Consisting of three core members, Glen Phillips, Sean Watkins and Luke Bulla, and joined on their debut album by Sara Watkins, Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas, the list of prior accomplishments by these extraordinary musicians is impressive. And if you, like me, haven't yet discovered the Stone Mountain Arts Center, it sounds like an amazing venue to get up close and personal with some pretty renowned melodious artists.

Glen Phillips is best known for his band Toad the Wet Sprocket, which he began in 1986 at the age of 16. By 1988, Toad had signed with Columbia Records and recorded five albums. The band participated in many major tours until 1998.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Sean Watkins, began his tenure with a group called Nickel Creek playing mandolin, but later switching to acoustic guitar. Nickel Creek released a Grammy award-winning album, This Side, in the summer of 2002.

Multi-instrumentalist Luke Bella has been singing and playing music most of his life. He started touring and singing with his family band at the age of four and took up the fiddle at seven. Over the next few years, he won the National Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho, six times in his respective age categories, with a seventh win in the Grand Champion division at age 16 – the youngest ever to have earned the title at the time. Luke was also the youngest to make the top 10 at the Grand Masters fiddle contest in Nashville, Tenn., at the age of 10. In the spring of 1999, Luke moved to Nashville and began working as a full-time musician. He has been most recently touring with Lyle Lovett.

WPA coalesced from an expanding collective of friends who have shared a musical history throughout a period of several years. At the smallest core, the band is Glen, Sean and Luke. Over the past two decades they have collaborated at one time or another on musical projects with the five additional members featured on their album. All have impressive credentials; Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Imposters), and Davey Faragher (Cracker, the Imposters). Drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Benmont Tench belong to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Currently, they are touring as a quintet and will be performing at Stone Mountain with Jerry Roe (Michelle Branch) on drums and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) on bass.

The music of WPA has been described as classic Southern California country rock, with their roots in progressive bluegrass. Instruments typical in Southern country rock include guitar, fiddle, steel guitar, piano, harmonica, bass drums, mandolin, banjo and vocals.

Says Sean, "The earliest incarnation of the band was when six of us performed in the 'Sings Like Hell' concert in Santa Barbara in February 2007. Glen was headlining that night and wanted some other musicians to join him so he called my sister Sara and me. We in turn invited Benmonth Tench, Greg Leisz and Luke Bulla. The musical chemistry and energy was undeniable that night. At the same time we realized that between us, we had a great little group of original songs. In the months that followed, Glen, Luke and I decided that this was something special and that we really wanted to record and tour it."

"We needed a rhythm section though, and who better then Elvis Costello's rhythm to help steer the ship? So we called Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher and to our delight, they were into it. We didn't have a record label or place to record, but shortly thereafter, I met recording engineer god, Jim Scott at a Wilco show in LA. I mentioned our new project to him and he said he'd love to record us at his studio. So we went into his studio and cut 17 songs in five days. We didn't know what we were doing at the time, we just knew that we were really excited about the songs and the amazing collection of musicians and as we recorded more, we all started to feel like a proper band."

PopDose.com says about the album, "... Jim Scott, perhaps best known for his work with Wilco and Tom Petty, produced the album in a way that allows the music to shine, and the playing is first-rate throughout. There is no studio gimmickry at work here. Of particular note is the fiddle playing by Luke Bulla and Sara Watkins, and the pedal steel work by Greg Leisz."

On their website, WPA states, "Works Progress Administration takes its name from FDR's 1939 New Deal initiative, which put millions to work making buildings, bridges, theater, art and music. The original WPA was rooted in the values of community and creativity, and helped to keep the fire of human dignity burning ... In this time, when the collective spirit is once again in need, WPA looks forward to serving you in your community."

Tickets to the Stone Mountain Arts Center performance can be acquired online at www.stonemountainartscen ter.com/ArtsCenter/WPA.html. Doors open at 6 p.m. and dinner is available by reservation before the show. Learn more about WPA by visiting their website, www.wpamusic.com/.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Varney Smith
Garnett HIll
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