If you went back in time and told the 15-year-old version of me that I would attend a sold-out Nickel Creek show in Minneapolis and sit nine rows from the stage, I would have thought you were lying. Firstly because I hadn’t quite experienced the joys of live (non-classical) music yet, and secondly because Nickel Creek were in the process of breaking up. After years of being the darlings of the bluegrass world, the young twenty-somethings were ready for a change and parted ways to pursue successful—and, in the case of Chris Thile, groundbreaking—solo careers, winning more than a few awards along the way.
When I heard about Nickel Creek’s demise, I was heartbroken. They were a staple on my iPod throughout my entire high school career, after I was introduced to them in my freshman English class when my teacher used “Lighthouse Tale” as an example of poetry in the music industry. In addition to offering a soundtrack to my adolescent life, Nickel Creek also introduced me to bluegrass and served as my gateway into the world of roots music. Although my dad had been playing banjo for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until I heard Nickel Creek that I truly became interested in the music he was playing. I gradually began mining Dad’s record collection, delving deeper and deeper into the bluegrass and Appalachian tunes that now provide the fodder for my campus radio show. When I heard about their reunion tour, therefore, the opportunity was too good to miss.
Seven and a half years later, the dynamic trio are back—and with a new album, A Dotted Line, to boot. And although age has altered them to varying degrees, their music is timeless as ever. Nickel Creek have always managed to strike a delicate balance between old and new, integrating traditional bluegrass techniques and instrumentation with contemporary sounds and styles for a unique listening experience that’s inspired much of the “newgrass” movement today. Their new material is no exception, weaving together gently buoyant instrumentals such as “Elsie” with percussive jams like “New Destination.” Their set Sunday night at the State Theatre effectively blended this new material with old favorites such as “The Fox,” “Smoothie Song,” and “Reasons Why.” A brilliant opening set from the newer Alabama-based country duo the Secret Sisters garnered its own standing ovation.
The packed audience was thrilled. Everyone and their grandmother was there to hail the return of this prodigal group, and despite the venue’s somewhat formal setting, the crowd actively participated—alternately cheering so loudly that you couldn’t hear yourself speak, and sitting in silent rapture. Among the songs, Nickel Creek interspersed light and witty banter. “It would have been really awkward if we had gone on tour and no one showed up to see us here,” Thile remarked at one point. “You all are so much better than crickets,” Sara Watkins chimed in.
Despite their fame, the trio were humble and self-deprecating. While introducing their new instrumental “Elephant in the Corn,” the group collectively deplored their poor title choices for their instrumental arrangements. (While I would argue that naming a song “In the House of Tom Bombadil” takes a stroke of genius, it is true that some songs were less successfully dubbed.) “Smoothie Song,” Chris sighed. “Two thumbs down.” He then proceeded to give it a 58 on a 50-to-250 scale. When Sara asked why, he replied nonchalantly, “I’m giving our instrumental titles wine scores.”
Yet, despite all of Thile’s practiced charm, it was Sean Watkins who clearly stole the show with funny testimonials about how he wrote songs such as “21st of May” (inspired by a fear-mongering rapture billboard), connecting with the crowd through humble grace and clever quips. The most memorable moments of the show, however, lay in the performances themselves: dynamic and thrilling for every second, with frequent improvisation and creative arrangements. The lineup allowed each performer to shine through numerous solos that showed their mastery of their instruments; Sara Watkins and Chris Thile each exhibited their expertise on the ukelele and the mandola respectively. Even their bass player—the incredibly talented and genteel Mark Schatz—displayed his talents to introduce “Ode to a Butterfly” with hambone, a traditional percussion technique that turns the body into a drum.
The performance was transcendent, never more so than during the deeply emotional and personal performance of “When You Come Back Down,” reminding us simultaneously of this group’s long and impressive journey, as well as of the intense power that their music possesses. Ultimately, these three (still young) musicians are masters of their craft.
It feels somewhat fitting that the group have finally reunited now as I’m finishing my college degree and about to enter the “real world.” When I discovered Nickel Creek, I was entering a new stage of life and they carried me through it, offering no end of inspiration. Now, as I close this chapter of my life, I have seen the group that helped shape my musical taste, and have a new album to help shape my future destinations wherever they may be. In short, we’ve all grown up a bit. But as the night proved, music can last a lifetime.
Mallory Guinee is a blogger, a harpist, and a French major at Carleton College. She loves traveling, long chats over tea, and listening to great music while lying on the living room floor.