A few years ago, a friend mentioned Dave Watkins to me. The two went to VCU together studied in the same department. My friend was amazed by the creative exuberance that Watkins exuded in everything he did–and soon, so was I. Using a looping station, a set of pedals, and a dulcitar, Watkins truly established himself as a one-of-a-kind musician.
A few years ago, a friend mentioned Dave Watkins to me. The two went to VCU together studied in the same department. My friend was amazed by the creative exuberance that Watkins exuded in everything he did–and soon, so was I. Using a looping station, a set of pedals, and a dulcitar, Watkins truly established himself as a one-of-a-kind musician. It might just be his unassuming presence that catches most people off guard when they witness his set for the first time, but make no mistake, there is a strong, counter-balanced idea behind every musical nuance that he draws from his surroundings. With these sonic landscapes, Watkins not only amazes audiences–he inspires a city.
If you are more than just a casual acquaintance of Watkins, you know that he spends most of his time in the basement of the Richmond Ballet, where he works as the audio-visual supervisor. In a basement cluttered with odds and ends, his music finds a distinct home in a warm atmosphere. Instruments are spread out everywhere, along with advanced recording equipment and show flyers that tell their own tales of enchanting musical escapades. Watkins is perhaps one of the more adventurous musicians in the city, and it all emanates from the most unlikely of instruments.
The dulcitar sounds remarkably Irish, and with its charm, it makes sense that Watkins is able to escape preconceived notions. As he explains, the dulcitar isn’t limited to just its strings. The construction of the body lends itself towards being used as a drum, and the creaks that come along for the ride can offer interesting bends of frequency. When amplified, you can even sing directly into the body of the instrument. Imagine this played through a ton of amplifiers, and that should give you a great idea as to what he accomplished with his debut full-length album, When No One Else is Here and Everyone is Asleep.
For this release, Watkins was able to strike a balance between what he achieves in a live environment and the endless possibilities that could be attained in a recorded setting. He took to the occasion and delivered a near-perfect musical statement that anchors his craft with dear sentiment. Cuts like “Marshall Street” help present this thought in it’s purest form. The subtle intro develops layer after layer, until the heaping bits begin to break at the seams and fall back into place with a thunderous drum outro. The contrast between the way this song turned out on record and how it has turned out live is fascinating. The album forced Watkins to reevaluate his set-up and determine how these songs could be pulled off in a live setting. In many ways, this helped the evolution of his improvisational mindset in live performance, and also gave him more toys to play with. “Marshall Street” is also a highlight in terms of where his musical curiosity has taken him. Watkins’ musical foundation is in frantic math rock, strong pop songwriting, and inspiring, exuberant performance, and “Marshall Street” includes a little bit of each of these facets. And even though the vocal on the track is barely discernible, it could easily act as an anthem for the region of this city that gives the song its title.
Outside of his solo work, Watkins spearheads The Colloquial Orchestra as another expressive form. The project has an open-door policy that enables its participants to bring along whatever instruments they feel inclined to perform with. It has included everything from your typical stringed instruments to children’s toys to smart phones. Watkins admits that there are many times where the end result is a mash-up of ideas that may not mesh together all that well. It’s the moments when everything syncs up that are worth the patience it takes to see what direction a composition can find on the spur of the moment. The project has included members of Lobo Marino, The Diamond Center, Hoax Hunters, Low Branches and many others. Even the likes of Nelly Kate and Minimalist founder Kristen Ziegler have dropped by to make an appearance. It’s a great avenue for Watkins to expand his roster of collaborators in a creative way,and if anything, it’s just as exciting for the audience as it is for the participants.
Watkins is a determined and strong-willed presence in the local scene. He’s unpredictable, and that is precisely why every project he involves himself with brings a particular excitement along with it. Whether it’s developing new instruments or incorporating unexpected elements into his creative process, one thing is for certain: Watkins is a one- of-a-kind musician that Richmond can never be too grateful for.
Next Up: Dave Watkins: The Visual Artist and The Engineer