Looking at the members of Nickel Creek, it sounds like a joke that their current comeback tour after seven years apart is also serving as a 25th anniversary celebration. Either they’ve been cryogenically preserved, you think, or they’ve been playing together since they were 10 years old.
Eight, actually. That’s how old Violinist Sara Watkins and mandolin player Chris Thile were when the band first started, and guitarist Sean Watkins, Sara’s older brother, was the elder statesman of the band at 12. Though they grew up in Southern California, Minnesotans developed a fondness for Nickel Creek through frequent appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, and in 2011, Sara Watkins earned the distinction of being the first person ever to guest-host Keillor’s show. In 2013, she also played in Keillor’s band for his “Radio Romance Tour.”
So we know these kids—which is why the State Theatre was sold out Sunday night. The Nickel Creekers are all in their 30s now, all with respectable solo careers, and last month they released a much-better-than-respectable new album, A Dotted Line, to put an exclamation mark on their comeback.
On Sunday night, the trio (backed by bass player Mark Schatz) played several tunes from the new album—“Destination,” “21st of May,” “Hayloft,” “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” “The Elephant in the Corn”—all of which reflect a dazzling amount of musical maturity and fearlessness. The tight harmonies and instrumental genius you’d expect are still there, of course, but along with it now is more emotional intensity, even more interesting arrangements, all sorts of catchy syncopations, moody tempo shifts, and jazzy textures, as well as a sly sense of humor. “21st of May” is a hilarious response to a Rapture that didn’t happen, for instance, and “Hayloft” is a bouncy little gem about the dangers of sexual adventures in certain farm structures—one that avoids being hokey by being so skillfully arranged.
For its 25th anniversary reunion concert at the State, the band reached back in its catalogue to play a long list of its favorites—“Reasons Why,” “When in Rome,” “Jealous of the Moon,” “When You Come Back Down,” “The Lighthouse’s Tale,” “The Fox,” and others—along with several of their hit instrumentals: “Scotch and Chocolate,” “The Smoothie Song,” and the Grammy-winning “Ode to a Butterfly.”
In concert, the band opens these tunes up by allowing Chris Thile (who won a Macarthur genius grant in 2012) to throw in some tasty improvisational licks when the spirit moves him, but otherwise they’re fairly faithful to the original versions. Sara Watkins wore her hair up, with a black dress, brown knee-length leather boots, and Zooey Deschanel smart glasses. Live, her voice sounds much fuller and richer than it does on most of Nickel Creek’s albums—but hey, she was just a kid when most of that stuff was recorded. Still, when presented with a more mature voice, a song like “Reasons Why” takes on more dimensions because it no longer sounds like it’s being sung by a wounded teenager.
The band is clearly having fun on this tour. Thile spends a lot of time moving his gangly frame around the stage, chicken-walking and, sometimes, staggering like he’s drunk. But he’s not—that’s the walk of a staggering genius, a fact he announces every time he launches into a mandolin solo. And Sean Watkins, the least famous of the bunch, is an underrated guitarist who both anchors the band’s rhythm and provides some of the show’s funniest moments.
The scary thing to contemplate is that, if they wanted to, Nickel Creek could play for another 25-50 years, easy. They probably won’t, but maybe they’ll see fit to come back in another 25 years and show us what they’ve been up to. Many of the folks who were at the State on Sunday night might not be alive to see it, including me, but I’m sure the audience in 2039 will have a great time.