When Doc Watson passed away in 2012 at the age of 89, his legacy as one of the most treasured and iconic figures of American country and folk music was embodied in nearly five decades worth of highly regarded recordings, both live and in the studio, and for many up and coming musicians, "pickin' with Doc" became one of the "must do" items on the career checklist.
But when he took the stage on a February evening in 1963 at the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., he was a month short of his 40th birthday and was still in the process of being introduced to the American musical consciousness at the height of the "Folk Boom." Still in business as Club Passim, the venue had already played a major role in sparking the careers of young folk singers like Tom Rush and Joan Baez, many of them city born and bred, yet eager to dip into the traditional songs. Doc, on the other hand, was the "real deal," a native of the deepest parts of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina who had grown up with the oldest of American folk songs as well as the early country recordings of artists like Charlie Poole and Jimmie Rodgers.
With only a few exceptions, all the songs in this collection of never-before released live recordings are familiar Watson standards that appear on other albums. There are, for example, several live versions of "Black Mountain Rag" scattered throughout the various sets, as well as a studio version Doc recorded with his late son Merle (and it's interesting to note that, over the course of his half-century in the spotlight, Doc's arrangement of this and the other fiddle tunes he loved to flatpick didn't change very much). Likewise, "Deep River Blues" and "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" sounded pretty much the same in 1963 as in 2003. Of particular note are a pair of tunes ("Blue Smoke" and "I Am A Pilgrim") that highlight the impact on Doc's career of Merle Travis, who at the time was still very much an iconic figure in country and folk music, an influence so profound that Doc named his only son for Travis.
Even if there are already multiple versions of these tunes in your library, there are at least two particularly good reasons to add this set. First, unlike some of the other (mostly festival and concert hall) recordings, the sound quality here is excellent, with enough intimate club ambience to make it seem like you're sitting in the front row. Second, it's a fascinating "time warp" back to the nostalgic time when "folk music" was giving pop and rock a good run for its money in the public consciousness. Hearing the audience reaction gives the overwhelming sensation that they knew they were hearing something special for the first time, and it's also clear that Watson was enjoying getting to know them. It's a wonderful experience, not just because of the history, but because it's simply great performance.