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John Isaac Watters, Plush, Sunday, Jan. 19

Raised in nearby Catalina, John Isaac Watters now calls Los Angeles home. The singer-songwriter played two mostly solo sets for a sparse crowd at Plush.

Losing the monotony and hopelessness that mars his records, Watters' performance lightened the atmosphere of his songs with enthusiasm, and the other kind of enthusiasm that naturally comes from a rapport with an artist's audience. This was especially ironic considering the juxtaposition of Conor Oberst's quivering vibrato and Leonard Cohen-esque vaudevillian folk songwriting that are at the core of his style were showcased more in the live setting. Still, whatever he was actually doing tended to work most of the time, making his music an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Singing songs drawn from his three albums Campanas, Casas, and Parachute Tramp, with some sensible (stylistically, anyway) covers, Watters seemed relaxed even when entrenched in his deepest of woes. Beside some banjo accompaniment, the show was just Watters' guitar and voice, sometimes whispering, sometimes shrieking, always in despair. Why was he more invigorating than suffocating, the opposite of his recorded form? For one, the instrumentation was missing, perhaps revealing a side of his compositions smothered in the studio, a side leavened with humor and an awareness that his (like anybody else's) position in the universe is not as an overtaking, overwhelming presence. We all suffer, some more than less, and Watters' seemed to be mindful of this. But perhaps the need, and subsequent pressure, to make a grand statement was eradicated in the company of family and friends, leaving Watters as a well-rounded musician, capable of expressing the full spectrum of human emotions. Which is, of course, the ultimate irony when discussing a confessional singer-songwriter - "He was fully honest about himself only when not many were expected to listen."

With this established, it was much easier to enjoy and appreciate Watters for his songs, guitar playing, and voice. And for himself, no matter how hard he may try to conceal that part.

More by Joshua Levine

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