Words by Dennis Cook

Nickel Creek :: 12.10.05 :: The Warfield :: San Francisco, CA

Nickel Creek by Danny Clinch
From the shadows, a mandolin brought the full house to attention even before the players made it onto the stage. Wireless in the wings, Chris Thile played the hard, ringing riff from "When In Rome," the first single from Nickel Creek's dazzling 2005 release, Why Should The Fire Die? Without a wave or howdy, they emerged, resonant presences all, and began to stalk the music. And they weren't about to stop until they had the beast in their teeth.

Building on the million-selling success of their first two albums, Nickel Creek has matured in virtually every respect in the past year. Their between-song patter shows they're still suffering youthful nerves, but when they play, when they sing, there's little doubt you're witnessing masters in the making. The multigenerational bohemians in attendance attested to the impressive sweep of their appeal, but beautifully crafted pop has a powerful way of insinuating itself. But make no mistake, this is a pop band. Sure, there are a few instrumentals and the musicianship skunks most of the competition, but you can safely throw their CDs into a changer with the Beatles and Paul Simon with zero incongruity.

What throws folks off is how they're (largely) doing it without drums. Pop music after the '80s has been defined by overbearing percussion. Nickel Creek invites, nay, charms us into listening with a deeper ear. The interplay of fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and stand-up bass is a whole conversation by itself. Blissfully, the crowd gathered in SF actually piped down and let them cast their spell.

Chris Thile :: Nickel Creek
Layered on top of their impressive picking is the finest three-part harmony singing since David Crosby teamed up with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Individually, Sara Watkins (violin), Thile, and Sean Watkins (guitar) have interesting, honeyed voices, but the blend is special - a modern descendent of that irregular but wholly holy mix one hears in The Band. Live it's a bit more frayed but that lived-in quality appeals. Unlike say the Eagles who boast about their vocal prowess but keep a professional men's quartet hidden backstage to bolster their singing, Nickel Creek belts it with conviction, and if every note isn't as seamless as the records, it benefits from the immediacy and honesty of heartfelt performances. Especially successful were the gutsy take on "Best of Luck" and Sara's utterly endearing ukulele-strummed "Anthony."

The teenybopper screams for the singles from their first two albums caught me off guard. Having only recently come into their fold, I don't have any nostalgia for the earlier work. It's quite good, no argument there, but it shows the fingerprints of their influences in a way the new tracks don't. There's a complexity to everything on Why Should The Fire Die? that comes through in the richness the songs are picking up as they're toured.

After inviting us to waltz with a stranger, the version of "Jealous of the Moon" upped the melancholy of the original, Thile's voice shining with hard-won comprehension on the amazing bridge:

Why don't you call me, I could save you
Together we can find a god we can pray to
That will take you by the hand

Nickel Creek by Erin Spurling
It was also classy that he pointed out the song was co-written with the great Gary Louris of Jayhawks fame.

The whole night had a marvelous ebb and flow, skipping between saucy instrumentals and crowd-pleasing hits, high energy and thoughtful calm. Besides their strong originals, the trio (expanded to a quartet by gifted longtime bassist Mark Schatz) surprised us with their choice of covers. An early showing of Randy Newman's "Short People," belted with wicked gusto by Sara Watkins, proved all bets are off with these folks. They mine popular culture for songs with which they can do something, listening without prejudice for the diamond beneath the thick radio production. Hence, the show-stopping rendition of Britney Spear's "Toxic," bolstered by Sara's spook-house violin and Thile's only-half-serious falsetto, that inspired quite the roar from the crowd.

Sean Watkins, the one who said the least and played the softest, kept drawing me in. With very little between-song chatter and not nearly as many solos as his peers, Sean was the model of subtlety. By choosing the things he "says" with such care, it made every note count. And it made me want to know more about what makes his musical mind work. It's a different kind of charm than that which Sara and Chris possess, but I find it equally potent.

It's encouraging that the pop world has embraced Nickel Creek. They beat ANYTHING on VH1 or Country Music Television (CMT, y'all). By channeling more classic models than last week's flavor, their music has a shelf-life of decades, maybe even a lifetime for those of us lucky enough to be listening now as they begin to hit their stride. What's ahead is exciting, made more so by an adventurous spirit that shakes off any easy expectations.

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[Published on: 12/16/05]

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