Live Review: Nickel Creek at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC 4/17/14

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photos Benjamin Hines (view set)

If there has been a moment where the now-common phenomena of massive reunion tours jumped the shark, it was in January, when Outkast announced that they'd be getting back together for the express purpose of playing their storied catalog at 40 festivals. More so than Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, or even the Pixies (arguably the first band to significantly benefit from the current festival-based reunion trek model), Outkast's reunion has drawn more public attention than any other critically-revered act, and playing an undeniably financially lucrative tour with no new music in sight feels both unsurprisingly and a little depressingly of the moment, and the logical apex (conclusion?) to the increasingly hyped (and increasingly lucrative) string of reunited acts across the last ten years. A few days after Big Boi and Andre 3000's Coachella return, another influential group that crossed out of genre lines began their own reunion trek. After a seven-year hiatus, the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek began their nearly entirely sold-out (as of this writing) 25th anniversary trek that made its second stop in Asheville, NC, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. As with any reunion, some skepticism came with this announcement. Nickel Creek initially dissolved because they'd felt like the band had run its course, and with all the great work coming from the band's members' other projects, why would they mess with such a glistening legacy? However, a few songs into mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins, and guitarist Sean Watkins' return, it was clear that this wasn't about any of those things. A familial warmth that is absent on so many other reunion tours was palpably present in Asheville that night, and by the end of the night, the show had established that this wasn't so much a celebration of Nickel Creek, the boundary-smashing bluegrass trio, but of the 25-year musical and personal partnership between Sean, Sara, and Chris.

Although this was marketed as a 25th anniversary tour, the Vista, California, trio (and touring bassist Mark Schatz) are also promoting A Dotted Line, their first album since reuniting and sixth overall. While not as adventurous as Thile's work with Punch Brothers or Watkins' more recent solo work, A Dotted Line is still a very good effort that finds the trio consolidating the skills they'd developed in their time apart and refining them with the familial chemistry that powered their best work. Appropriately, the band emitted a sense of ease onstage, comfortable locking in their parts with the others with the confidence that only comes with years of playing together (25, to be exact). The new material consisted of about a quarter of the night's 23-song set, and while it got the relatively weakest response from the rapturous audience, it stood out in a way that most bands' new material, reunion album or otherwise, typically doesn't two weeks into a tour.

Each of the Line songs showed a more confident, older Nickel Creek, which, for a band whose legacy is inseparable from their early 2000s wunderkind status, is no small feat. "Destination", the show's opening number, found Sara Watkins, whose already-strong vocal ability improved significantly during the band's hiatus, beginning the night by leading her brother and Thile head-first into a string of three of the band's best tunes: "The Lighthouse's Tale" (still one of Thile's most affecting compositions), the instrumental "Scotch and Chocolate", and "This Side", one of a handful of moments where Sean Watkins, the band's rhythmic engine and often-unsung hero, comfortably took the lead. The other tracks from A Dotted Line on the night's setlist were spread out, but timed wisely to complement their catalog tracks. Sean Watkins' sardonically apocalyptic "21st of May" provided some comic relief from the generally-serious songwriter, Thile's "Love of Mine" showed that there remains a perpetually-romantic songwriter behind the virtuosic mandolinist, Sara Watkins' show-closing and showstopping "Where Is Love Now?" highlighted a singer who seems less and less suited for the supporting roles she's played in recent years, and the Thile and Sara-led cover of Mother Mother's "Hayloft" proved that the band still has unpredictable taste and, borrowing a move from Sara's pop-influenced 2012 solo outing, Sun Rising Sun, a knack for using covers to push their instrumental boundaries for no other obvious purpose other than their own enjoyment.

While their recorded work was surely as crucial, Nickel Creek's reputation as a phenomenal live band preceded them from early on in their career. While most of the bands in the current wave of folk rock undeniably draw an instrumental influence from bluegrass playing, they often lack the finesse shared by the genre's best players, opting to deliver things with raucous, messy zeal rather than pristine precision. That's not to say it never works, but in folk music, strumming the hell out of a guitar is never going to consistently top skillful playing over an artist's career. (Cases in point: Laura Marling, Fleet Foxes). That can be a barrier for some acts, but for Nickel Creek, it's their most valuable asset. At this stage in their career, it's somewhat of a moot point to talk about how technically skilled the trio are on their instruments. (In Thile's case, there's a $625,000 grant that speaks more volumes than whatever some journalist could.)

However, noting their technical skill does help explain how it facilities the adventurousness of the material on their three proper* albums, 2000's self-titled effort (the one with the hilariously-dated cover art), 2002's This Side (the one where they covered Pavement), and 2005's Why Should The Fire Die? (the one where they tied it all together to make their [to this writer's ears] best album). The lattermost album contributed nine of the night's songs, ranging from the stinging "When In Rome" to the remorseful "Helena". Prior to A Dotted Line, Fire was the band's album that featured the most collaborative songwriting, and considering that each of the members went on to do some degree of collaborative work during their hiatus, perhaps it's unsurprising that its material held up the best.

Although most of the material in the set was played fairly faithful to the recorded versions, the Watkins siblings (especially Sara) took on a more active vocal role than on the recordings and the trio's sense of collaborative playing has improved since their initial run, which imbued the Nickel Creek material with new vigor. Far and away the most rapturously received songs of the night, songs like "When You Come Back Down", "Ode to A Butterfly", and "Reasons Why" felt like highlights for the band as much as they were for the audience. While they never felt even remotely disconnected during their initial run, the trio feel more developed and mature now than they did during their teens, and by they got to their main set-ending take on the traditional folk tune "The Fox", they were trading off solos with ease, grinning and moving around onstage with fervor.

The still-strong resonance of their catalog, both old and new, was enjoyable for obvious nostalgic reasons, but perhaps unintentionally, the trio's reunion tour also underscores the stronger-than-ever influence of their legacy. In a time when crossover success seems more crucial than ever, it's easy to forget what a massive trail Nickel Creek blazed during their original run. A televised Grammy performance, a pair of top 20 albums, high festival billings (before festival billings were even a reliable metric of success), and being able to name the famously-insular Fiona Apple as a collaborator – these are all things that would be noteworthy for any group, but for a bluegrass group in the pop – and hip hop-dominated first half of the 2000s, those achievements are even more stunning. Of course, a wave of folk-influenced music moved into the mainstream consciousness a few years ago, but the idea of such a crossover seems like it would have been far less likely (or massive) without Nickel Creek first planting the seeds.

Yet somehow, they feel removed from those groups, mostly because Nickel Creek always felt so singular. Between their famously young members, familial dynamic, and the lack of any comparable contemporaries, Nickel Creek was a group that seemed to operate in a vacuum. Their integration of country, pop, and indie rock elements may have turned away some genre purists, but it also caused them to become bluegrass's ambassadors to new, especially younger, audiences, and that's why the Nickel Creek reunion tour doesn't feel like a nostalgia trip or an arrogant victory lap to remind everyone how much respect they deserve. It feels like the rare instance of a band returning to a musical landscape they helped create, looking around, and focusing inward to refine their own music rather than expressly aiming to expand their legacy. Near the end of the set, Sara Watkins put it so aptly as she slightly emotionally looked at her bandmates and calmly stated, "stage right feels like home." A remark like that could be easily misinterpreted as a subtle request for applause, but the familial tone of the evening made it clear that more than influence, critical respect, or commercial success, the impetus for Sean, Sara, and Chris to do this jaunt is simply the joy of seeing the fire rekindled.

*The first two Nickel Creek albums, 1993's Little Cowpoke and 1997's Here To There, were recorded when the members were still children and preceded the stylistic refinement more representative of the band's overall aesthetic, and are therefore overlooked in their discography.

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