Chris Watson is sort of rebranding himself. After playing the North Texas circuit for most of his professional life as bandleader of the soulful nine-piece the Chris Watson Band, he’s now fronting the Retrophonics, a jazzy trio whose debut recording, a self-titled EP, came out in May.
Before the global pandemic, the group had played a few crowded rooms and received a good response, said keyboardist/bassist Watson, which encouraged him and his bandmates –– drummer Luke Callaway and guitarist Camden Gonzales –– to release the recording. The tracks are pretty steamy. The ballads “Beautiful,” “Just for Tonight,” and “Stay the Night” reflect what Watson calls a romantic theme. The other two songs –– the instrumentals “Lucky Penny” and “Cornbread” –– are scorchers with horns and are kind of Stevie Wonder-esque.
Watson started out on the North Texas scene as a teenager, playing alongside his father, Wallace Watson, and his The Up All Night Blues Band. Some of the first stages Watson ever stepped foot on are Keys Lounge in the Fort and Dallas’ Hole in the Wall. Now 34, the multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter has played guitar with country superstar Pat Green and traveled the globe with Robert Randolph & The Family Band.
The Retrophonics’ 21 minute-long EP has a distinct retro feel and also a lot of joy.
“Looking back at my other records,” Watson said, “almost all of them have been about heartbreak, breakups, and were angry types of songs until now.”
What changed was that Watson fell in love. He’s about to get married in September.
Watson engineered, produced, and mastered the record at his home studio in Fort Worth. The initial day of live tracking was done with the help of singer-songwriter Ryan Tharp at his Fort Worth home studio for Watson to be able to perform without tracking and engineering his work at the same time. Once all the raw live tracks were downloaded to a hard drive, Watson added the final touches at his studio.
Only one of the tracks did not involve the band’s current lineup. “Cornbread,” with saxophones, trumpet, and trombone, is a Chris Watson Band song, the songwriter said.
“The Chris Watson Band lasted for 10 years,” he said. “It ran its course, but ‘Cornbread’ … was recorded two years ago.”
The playing on the record has a positive, uplifting energy and focuses on fiery solos, with 19-year-old guitarist Gonzales leading the way. Watson said Gonzales has an ear for melody, which goes together with Watson’s keys and Calloway’s drums in much the same way. Watson’s bandmates take the pressure off his double task of playing keys and bass at the same time.
“We are always creatively pushing and pulling on songs,” Watson said. “I’m lucky to have such talented band members. This album is probably the best piece of music I’ve ever put out.”
Calloway’s drums keep the pace fast and vibrant, and it goes together well with Watson’s keys, bass, and high, sweet, soulful voice.
“You and I should take our time tonight,” he sings on “Stay the Night.” “Tell me won’t you stay the night / I want to hold you in my arms, oh, won’t you stay the night? / There’s room in my bed, and I can’t sleep without you, baby, in my arms / Won’t you stay the night?”
Watson chose not to adopt a solo moniker for his latest project out of respect for the contributions of his bandmates. For now, Watson has been gigging as often as he can with just him and an acoustic guitar.
“During the first month of the pandemic, playing live feeds and working for tips on social media, I had a solid outpour of people that contributed their support,” he said. “When the time comes and venues get back to normal, I plan on releasing the tracks to radio stations.”
And playing full-band gigs.