Concert Review: The Secret Sisters at the Ryman

“If your music doesn’t make you feel bad then you’re not listening to country music.”
~ Laura Rogers, The Secret Sisters

Secret Sisters 1

As much as I enjoyed the Nickel Creek concert at the Ryman on Saturday (read my review), it wasn’t only the headliners I wanted to hear. The Secret Sisters were slated to open the show. I’ve wanted to see the harmony duo for a couple of years now. Its hard to imagine if you could put together a more solid opening and headlining act than the Secret Sisters and Nickel Creek.

Like Nickel Creek, the Secret Sisters have released a new album to coincide with the summer tour. Their show opening set were all songs from that just released album, “Put Your Needle Down.” It was a home run set–about 35 minutes of harmony goodness–and I have no doubt they made plenty of new fans.

Highlights performed off the new album included the power charged “Rattle My Bones,” Everly Brothers tinged “Black and Blue,” and girl-power anthem “The Pocket Knife.” The murder ballad “Iuka,” inspired by their grandparents’ young marriage in the Mississippi town, tells the tale of young lovers who meet a tragic end.

What would have made their warm-up perfect for me? An encore performance of “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder,” their tear-jerker written in response to the 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak. The song was featured on The Hunger Games soundtrack. Alas, the Secret Sisters did not return for an encore Saturday night.

Laura and Lydia Rogers grew up singing a cappella harmony in churches of Christ around their native–and legendary–Muscle Shoals. The obvious comparison is to the Everly Brothers, but a more apt comparison might be to Alabama’s Louvin Brothers. Certainly the Louvins’ album title “Tragic Songs of Life” coincides with the Rogers’ stated philosophy that country music ought to make you feel bad.

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

But the Secret Sisters aren’t simply channeling the 1940s like a harmony version of Gillian Welch (that’s no knock on Gillian). Songs like “Rattle My Bones” make you want to turn the volume all the way up to eleven. They clearly feel as comfortable with a single acoustic guitar as with having Jack White (or The Punch Brothers) back them up on “Big River.”

I have to admit that one of the reasons I feel an affinity for the Secret Sisters is the guitar they play. On the Ryman Saturday night they used a D-28 style acoustic made by Athens, Alabama’s Jim Hays. Jim is a good friend, and has been quietly making some of the best guitars out there. After the show when I mentioned Jim Hays to the Rogers girls they brightened up and began raving about him and his guitar. For me, it makes their music even more special.

Whether with Nickel Creek or on their own, run, don’t walk, to hear the Secret Sisters perform live. You won’t be sorry. These gals are doing country music the right way, and they showcased that at the Ryman on Saturday night.


Concert Review: Nickel Creek at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium

Nickel Creek group

[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.

Nickel Creek HatchComprised 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.”

NC - Anthony 2(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.

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[Later this week, a look at Nickel Creek’s opening act The Secret Sisters.]

Nickel Creek Back in Business On the Tonight Show

After a seven year hiatus Nickel Creek is back with a (great) new album, a new tour, and last night, an appearance on Jimmy Fallon performing ‘Destination’:

Nickel Creek performs ‘Destination’ ~ Jimmy… by HumanSlinky

I’ve seen Nickel Creek far and wide, and am excited have tickets to see them at the Ryman later this month. Stay tuned.