[Spoiler Alert: Details of the night’s set lists are discussed below. If you don’t want to know, don’t read it.]
I’ve never been to a concert that opened with a standing ovation, that is until Saturday night at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium. Before Nickel Creek played a note, the sold out crowd of over 2,300 took to its feet and welcomed the trio back from their over six year hiatus. It was an expression of joy and relief from dedicated fans who feared such a day might never come.
Comprised of siblings Sara Watkins on fiddle and Sean Watkins on guitar plus mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, Nickel Creek was a juggernaut of New Grass, a blend of Bluegrass instrumentation and more pop sensibilities. The group split up over six years ago to pursue other projects. But now on the band’s twenty fifth anniversary—amazing considering the oldest member is only 37 years old—the trio released a new album, “A Dotted Line,” and announced a run of shows for the spring and summer. This was only their fourth show in the tour.
In expected Nickel Creek fashion, the concert was a high energy blend of new songs and old favorites backed up by Bluegrass bass legend Mark Schatz. Highlights from the new album included the Sara Watkins vehicle “Destination,” and the Sean Watkins song “21st of May”, a humorous—and catchy—take on the Harold Camping failed rapture from three years ago.
One of the fun new songs featured was “Hayloft,” a cover of a song by Canadian pop group Mother Mother. “Hayloft” demonstrates Nickel Creek’s great skill at playing pop-rock with acoustic instrumentation, a talent demonstrated on the last tour with their tongue-in-cheek version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
(Nickel Creek performs “Anthony.” Picture courtesy of my friend Beth Pontal of Love You Muches.)
A favorite for my wife and me was Sara’s song “Anthony,” which is remembered by us as the only song that would stop our then-infant Claire from crying in the car. We’ve heard it hundreds of times, surely, and still love its catchy humor.
A question going into the concert was how—or whether—Thile would treat early flagship songs like “The Lighthouse’s Tale.” He had publicly distanced himself from “Lighthouse,” and was no longer playing it at all. “The Fox” also became a signature live piece for Thile as he incorporated Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into it along with increasingly complicated instrumental sampling in a jam band style. Like “Lighthouse,” the song clearly became more of a burden than a pleasure for him.
One advantage of being away from the Nickel Creek spotlight for a few years is the ability to hit the reset button, and that’s exactly what a more mature Thile was able to do. He poked some fun at “Lighthouse,” but then played and sang a beautiful version. Likewise with “The Fox,” Thile embraced the original album version during the encore, with no Dylan or Mario Brothers theme to be found. Fans appreciated both.
And this marks the real change in Nickel Creek. Age has, unsurprisingly, matured them. The time with other projects has exercised musical muscles that might have been left to sag with Nickel Creek alone. Sarah Watkins is a stronger singer, and I think they’re less interested as a group in pushing to impress.
Twenty five years of Nickel Creek has brought us the best of all possible worlds: a better Nickel Creek than ever while its members are just hitting their musical prime, poised for another twenty five years. If you get a chance to catch them live this summer don’t miss the opportunity.
[Later this week, a look at Nickel Creek’s opening act The Secret Sisters.]