If only all child performers could age as gracefully as the Nickel Creek trio.
It's hard to believe, but the group--mandolin player Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins--originally formed 25 years ago as a kiddie bluegrass group. And even though Sean Watkins is the oldest of the group at 37 (Thile and Sara Watkins turn 33 this year), Nickel Creek has been around long enough to become fan favorites for acoustic-music lovers, release enough albums for a "greatest-hits" collection, and take a seven-year sabbatical so the members could explore other musical frontiers. It's truly amazing how much ground the precocious crew has covered, individually and as a whole, before any of them hit 40.
Bringing what Thile called their "indefinite hiatus" to an end this year, it would have been easy for Nickel Creek to just hit the road and play the old favorites. No one missing their distinct and mesmerizing harmonies and instrumental acuity would have been disappointed in that kind of show. So give Nickel Creek extra credit for first crafting a stellar new album, A Dotted Line, that holds up with any of their older releases--maybe even exceeds them.
Wednesday at Kingsbury Hall, the band's confidence in the new material was obvious, as they both opened the show with a new tune (Thile's "Rest of My Life") and ended their encore two hours later with Sara's excellent cover of Sam Phillips' "Where Is Love Now."
In between, the camaraderie among the three (and touring bassist Mark Schatz) was reminiscent of past tours, with the trio poking fun at each other between songs, and each taking their respective turns chatting up the crowd. Thile and Sara are most natural, but the generally low-key Sean had some good one-liners, too.
The musicianship? Pretty incredible, as expected. Thile is a mandolin wonder who spent his hiatus working with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and fronting another stellar band, Punch Brothers (playing Deer Valley July 6). Sara's fiddle-playing (and one-off effort on ukelele for "Anthony") was passionate and a blast to watch, and her voice has matured into a more powerful force than before the hiatus to my ears. Sean's nimble guitar served as a solid foundation throughout, with occasionally bursts of intricate solos coming through.
Thile joked about the band's inability to come up with good names for their instrumental songs as the reason Nickel Creek's hiatus was necessary; thankfully, plenty of those songs dotted the set. Older favorites like "Scotch and Chocolate," "Smoothie Song" and "Ode to a Butterfly" were joined by new one "The Elephant in the Corn." Together, those instrumental songs were definite highlights of the show.
Older fan favorites like "This Side," "The Lighthouse's Tale," "Reasons Why" and "When In Rome" all came in the first half of the 23-song set. While it was hard to believe the band could keep up that kind of pace, it proved easy as songs like "Somebody More Like You," "When You Come Back Down," "Doubting Thomas" and "The Fox" filled out the second half.
The new songs had no problem holding their own alongside the familiar. Sara-sung "Destination" was excellent, with Thile and Sean's harmonies providing a perfect accompaniment. Sean's "21st of May," a light-hearted look at the apocalypse, was a winner, as was Thile's "You Don't Know What's Going On."
Sara introduced "Hayloft"--a dramatic sonic departure on A Dotted Line, not quite as much live--by saying "Here's a little song about getting it on in a hayloft." The tune is more jagged and bombastic than the smooth and subtle style more familiar to Nickel Creek fans, and offers a potential peek into new challenging work the band will hopefully make in the future.
The encore of "The First and Last Waltz," "Helena" and "Where Is Love Now" finished off what was an outstanding show, through and through. Nickel Creek's music doesn't really lend itself to a half-assed live show, and the energy was great inside Kingsbury Hall.
Here's hoping the trio manages to get on a hot streak naming those instrumentals so we don't have to wait another seven years for a Nickel Creek show in Salt Lake City.