I only saw Nickel Creek once before their hiatus in 2007 but that show did have Fiona Apple as a bonus co-headliner. I had just been getting into their boisterous bluegrass and was disappointing to hear they were parting ways (the tour was called Farewell (For Now)). Sure, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are all gifted musicians and went on to put out music under other projects, but the bluegrass collaboration that is Nickel Creek was the foundation of their fan base. Excluding the intermittent get-togethers, earlier this year the band officially ended their hiatus with the announcement of a tour and a new album, A Dotted Line, their first for Nonesuch Records. The news also said the reunited group are celebrating their 25th anniversary — amazingly, the group can trace its roots to 1989, a year when their combined ages was no more than 32.
Nickel Creek’s 2014 tour is “highly anticipated” as touted by The New York Times and here at PopMatters, as evident by the anticipation in our recent interview. And though the band’s performance in New York City at the Beacon Theatre was only for one night, they could have easily sold out three given the pent-up demand. For these shows, Nickel Creek invited the traditional country duo The Secret Sisters (real life sisters) on the road as openers.
The Secret Sisters are Laura and Lydia Rogers from Muscle Shoals, Alabama with powerful voices. When each was singing solo, distinct vocal tones were audible. Laura has a more resonant heartland heft to her voice while Lydia’s tones sounded like a classic ’50s songstress, and when combined, their voices were sweetly sonorous. They sang from their first album, The Secret Sisters and their recently released second album, Put Your Needle Down, including a tune co-written with Bob Dylan, “Dirty Lie” for one of the first performances this tour. The ladies often spoke with the crowd, chatting about the wonders of New York, their new album, and coming close to murdering each other. The latter served to introduce the track “Rattle my Bones” a lively track with a vocal rattle, “Hey!”. The Rogers Sisters were humble and appreciative to everyone, the audience for watching and waiting (years) for the headliner, to their record label for supporting them but primarily to Nickel Creek for inviting them on tour as they closed with “Bad Habit”, a slow dirge edged with the pain borne by some unnamed sin.
Nickel Creek were in full form when they took the stage to perform “Rest of My Life”, and they received massive applause in return. The band proceeded into the instrumental “Scotch & Chocolate”, before Thile stopped to speak with the audience, proudly declaring, that tonight was the band’s “first show headlining the Beacon”. What followed was a blend of the band’s greatest hits, some new favorites and a lot of insight via banter, from Sean about his state of mind when writing a song to Thile critiquing many titles in their oeuvre.
Time away had allowed the band to dwell upon many titles of their songs, instrumental or otherwise, to which they shared their judgments throughout the set. “Scotch & Chocolate” was a good title, but Thile took blame for the lamer “Smoothie Song” (“there is no hardcore way to say ‘That’s the Smoothie Song’!”) as he wrote it himself. Sara helped him save face by recalling a prior audience assisted in picking the title. Another instrumental, the new “Elephant in the Corn”, is one of their strongest and most apt titles, with the upright bass “elephant” snoozing unconcerned in the field. Thile also explained that since, so many people shouted for the “angel” song during shows, even though the title was in the chorus repeatedly, the band essentially gave up trying to use the real name and had listed “angel song” on the setlist.
“When You Come Back Down”, that angel song, is one of my absolute favorite songs (not limited to Nickel Creek) and hearing it live sent shivers down my spine — a rare sensation to experience at a live show these days. Thile and the Watkins siblings sounded much more mature than the studio version, skillfully emphasizing certain phrases over others in the heartfelt tune. “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and “Somebody More Like You”, other older favorites, were also given a brighter hew through stronger vocals, avoiding erosion from time. But new tracks were also highlights. There was Sean’s “21st of May” a robust tongue-in-cheek warning of the impending apocalypse which he wrote after seeing a religious billboard in 2012, and Sara’s “Hayloft” was more aggressive than anything else they performed.
Nickel Creek already cemented a strong musical legacy back in 2007 and there success may have inspired many of today’s folksier bands, namely Mumford & Sons or Of Monsters and Men, to pick up their banjos and go for the mainstream. We are fortunate to have the trio back now, more mature and more inspired than ever before and they are likely to earn new fans through their current tour. Their legacy deserves to stretch higher from the ground.
The Secret Sisters:
Rest of my Life
Scotch & Chocolate
The Lighthouse’s Tale
21st of May
When in Rome
Tomorrow is a Long Time (Bob Dylan)
Ode to a Butterfly
You Don’t Know What’s Going On
When You Come Back Down (Danny O’Keefe and Tim O’Brien)
Somebody More Like You
Elephant in the Corn
First and Last Waltz
Where is Love Now