Nickel Creek’s 9:30 Club show on Saturday night was like a big hug and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies.
If you’re now conjuring up wrinkly visions of your grandparents, fear not; when listening to Nickel Creek there are no strange smells or tangents of accidental racism. The trio has been cooking up sweet, sweet aural bliss for longer than I’ve been alive, but the wisdom they’ve acquired with old age (their 30s) only serves to amplify their smiles and playful vigor. Cynics could be quick to write off their imaginative rendering of bluegrass and folk tropes as something overly precious, but if anything it’s an earned preciousness. It’s a preciousness that lets you sleep easy and comforts you on the shittiest of days. Nickel Creek makes music that you want in your life, whether you know it or not, and this is never the more evident than when you see them fill up a club and spend nearly two hours blowing your mind.
A quick primer: Nickel Creek is made up of Chris Thile on the mandolin and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins on the fiddle and guitar, respectively. Essentially the Jacksons of the bluegrass universe, they started young and were already a known entity by the time their Alison Krauss-produced debut was released in 2000. Nickel Creek’s initial three albums received Grammy noms, and critics praised them for extending the bounds of bluegrass to a point where Pavement and Britney Spears covers were right at home alongside ballads and standards.
The band decided to take a break in 2007 as they began to creatively diverge. Thile formed the even more progressive bluegrass group Punch Brothers and won a MacArthur genius grant in 2012 for his mandolin wizardry. The Watkins siblings also kept busy with a variety of projects including Sean’s Fiction Family and two solo albums from Sara. Fast forward to the present, and Nickel Creek has reunited for their 25th anniversary. They’ve put out a fantastic new record, A Dotted Line, that refines the most immediate aspects of their earlier material, and they’re touring behind it this summer.
The Nickel Creek live experience is a memorable one first and foremost because of how great it sounds. Thile can do some pretty damn incredible things with his mandolin, but he reels in his flashiness to share the spotlight with the talented Watkins siblings and touring bassist Mark Schatz, who even got a couple of his own pleasant features. From an instrumental standpoint, Nickel Creek’s sound is simultaneously rich, articulate and inviting, and wordless jams like “Ode to a Butterfly” and A Dotted Line’s “Elephant in the Corn” were effortlessly engaging in addition to being technically masterful. I haven’t been a fan of the excessive loudness at 9:30 Club shows as of late, but the folks behind the board did a nice job Saturday night making sure the balance was never upset by an instrument or harmony cranked a few notches too high.
Let’s talk about those harmonies. They’re not dense like the Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons variety. Instead, they deftly weave through each other, coalescing for moments of climax, such as during this year’s comeback single “Destination,” and for the delicate peacefulness of “When You Come Back Down” and encore closer “Where is Love Now.” Thile, Sara and Sean all sing well individually, but together they share an intimate dynamic that’s chilling. Nickel Creek captures a kind of magic onstage that you’d expect from bearded old farts who have spent decades on the road together. The only difference is that the trio and their songs are as sharp and poignant as ever. This is a reunion, but nostalgia is only part of the equation.
Spanning all four albums, the generous setlist brought together Nickel Creek’s best material and didn’t really have any glaring omissions. I could find places to nitpick (“Helena,” as gorgeous as it is, will never be fully realized until the band brings a drummer on tour with them), but no flaws made the show any less of a treat.
Near the end of the main set, Thile’s mandolin riffage launched Nickel Creek into a cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft,” an abrasive song about sex in the barnyard reimagined as a raucous new wave/bluegrass hybrid. It’s a colorful romp that finds the band continuing to expand their sound in delightful new ways. Then, they did a 360 and slayed the high-flying bluegrass standard “The Fox,” reminding us of how it all began 25 years ago. Nickel Creek is one of the few bands that consistently moves me and thrills me; Saturday night’s show affirmed that and then some. Thile and the Watkins siblings may have grown up, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of them.