What has happened since progressive bluegrassers Nickel Creek took an indefinite hiatus seven years ago?
Creek frontman Chris Thile won a MacArthur genius grant and made major musical noise with the Punch Brothers, Yo-Yo Ma and others. Creek fiddler/singer Sara Watkins won lots of fans with regular appearances on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and two solo albums. And guitarist/singer Sean Watkins built his resume by forming Fiction Family and the supergroup WPA with Glen Phillips, Benmont Tench and others.
When the reunited Nickel Creek hit the stage Sunday at the sold-out State Theatre, the fans reacted like they were witnessing the return of a beloved boy-band. Screams, whistles, shouts – nothing usually associated with bluegrass groups, even one celebrating its 25th anniversary (they started as tweens).
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that 89.3 the Current has been showing love for Nickel Creek’s reunion album, “A Dotted Line,” tunes from which were the focus of the nearly two-hour performance. Or maybe a new generation has simply gotten hooked on bluegrass/folk from Trampled by Turtles and the Punch Brothers. Sunday's crowd was a mix of 20-something hipsters, graying bluegrassers and plenty of people in between.
Supported by bassist Mark Schatz, Nickel Creek was in good spirits, good form and good humor. Thile playfully boasted about the group’s ability to create great titles for instrumental songs. He rated “Scotch and Chocolates” an A-plus, dissed “Smoothie Song” and bragged about “Ode to a Butterfly” and especially the brand new “The Elephant in the Corn.”
Concertgoers could have bragged about the band’s instrumental prowess, especially the versatility demanded with all the stylistic shifts during the musical maze that is “The Elephant in the Corn.”
Nickel Creek has always been about Thile’s expert mandolin work, Sara’s fine fiddling, the three-part vocal harmonies and musical creativity.
Sean’s “21st of May” was a witty reflection on the doomsday predictions for the Darkness that never transpired. Sister Sara’s “Anthony” was a witty ditty dripping in irony with humor that evoked Nellie McKay and harmonies that suggested the Roches.
A version of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was all bouncy indie-rock with a jagged fiddle solo and an intense Nirvana-evoking mandolin break. It was followed by “The Fox,” a traditional workout that might have prompted fans to promenade and dosey-do if there had been room to square dance. Instead, people just clapped in cadence.
The high point may have been the finale, Sara’s rendition of Sam Phillips’ “Where Is Love Now.” It’s a pretty, sad song, with so much loneliness in Sara’s slightly breathy voice with a hint of vibrato. The chorus was dark and Beatley. If Paul McCartney had been a woman writing a country plaint, it might have sounded like this truly special piece.
Opening the concert were the delightful Secret Sisters. In conversation, Laura Rogers came across like Melissa McCarthy only more self-deprecating and less loud but just as funny. In song, the sisterly harmonizing Laura and Lydia Rogers were similarly clever, packing emotional punch in such new numbers as "Bad Habit" and “Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye.”