David Royko Psy.D

david@davidroyko.com

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A&E

 

Nickel Creek celebrates an unlikely 25-year anniversary

By David Royko, Special to the Tribune

May 8, 2014

That Nickel Creek's current anniversary tour celebrates 25 years might seem surprising because fiddler/singer Sara Watkins is 32, her brother, guitarist/singer Sean Watkins is 38, and mandolinist Chris Thile is 33.

But what about Nickel Creek has not been surprising, if not a touch amazing?

Meeting while still little ones at a California pizza joint that had a virtuosic bluegrass group in residence, the future Creek'sters took lessons from members of the band before starting their own, with Thile patriarch Scott on bass and oversight.

Nothing amazing there, except that Nickel Creek developed into arguably the hottest acoustic string band in the country before Sara and Chris were out of their teens.

And then, in 2007, they did what their fans thought unthinkable: Nickel Creek went on "hiatus," a term that has become a wishy-washy euphuism bands use to break up while hedging their bets.

But again, Nickel Creek was different. They actually knew the definition of hiatus: a pause or gap, not an end.

"We never looked at it as a break up," says Sean Watkins, by phone from the road. "Our last tour (in 2007) was called 'Farewell for Now.' We've always felt that we were a band since then. We just weren't playing shows together officially."

Or putting out new music, until now and their new CD and download, "A Dotted Line" (Nonesuch).

"We had other musical areas that we wanted to explore," says Sara, "but we were trying to fit them into a Nickel Creek format, which was wide, but not wide enough for some of the things we wanted to do."

What kinds of things? For Sean Watkins, the Fiction Family (with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman); the Works Progress Administration (WPA, an all-star band); The Watkins Family Hour shows at the Los Angeles music club, Largo, featuring a revolving door of heavy hitters sitting in with the Watkins sibs and a new solo album, his fourth, "All I Do Is Lie."

Sara was also part of WPA and The Watkins Family Hour; joined Garrison Keillor for his 2010 "Summer Love" tour; guest-hosted "A Prairie Home Companion" and released two solo albums ("Sara Watkins," "Sun Midnight Sun," Nonesuch, 2009; 2012).

And mandolinist Thile's overbooked, overachieving life has encompassed recorded collaborations with bassist Edgar Meyer, guitarist/singer Michael Daves, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, four releases by his band, Punch Brothers, a classical disc of Bach violin sonatas and partitas transferred to his mandolin and in the middle of it all, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant.

So when Sean says they had things to do that even as flexible an ensemble as Nickel Creek could not embrace, it is an understatement, not a rationalization.

And it worked. Sara, for one, had a chance to move from being a fiddle fatale to a true vocal threat.

"I think it took me a long time to feel comfortable with my voice because I hadn't done all of those things that are necessary, like singing with other people and playing with other people," says Sara. "As long as Nickel Creek was so busy, it was hard to even think about wanting to do anything when you come home for a week and you're just trying to recover."

Her seven-year evolution has been striking.

"My first record," says Sara, "was pretty safe and conservative, basically a home-based record. It was me. I knew this at the time. I just wanted to create this home thing with wonderful friends playing, and this was the starting point.

"For 'Sun Midnight Sun,'" Sara continues, "I wanted to take a step forward and play with the people I was playing with that day, sing the songs that I had written that month, be much more current and show people, and show myself, that this is me now."

For Sean Watkins, "We had one Nickel Creek record we had been really happy with, our last one before the break, 'Why Should The Fire Die' (Sugar Hill, 2005). So now with 'A Dotted Line,' we have two records we feel connected with. On this tour, the balance between the old and new makes playing the old songs much more fun."

Their hiatus has added up to rich dividends for the older, wiser and more experienced Nickel Creek, and their audience.

"We've all learned a lot over the years," says Sara, "and singing together now in Nickel Creek is so much fun because I think we've all become stronger singers, having fronted our own situations and singing with different people. We're more adaptable. It makes coming together and singing three-part harmonies with Sean and Chris even more satisfying."

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When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Riviera, 4746 N. Racine Ave.
Tickets: $37.50 (sold out); 773- 275-6800 or jamusa.com

Related:

At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile already is a mature artist (Chgo Trib, Nov 6, 1994) 

Chris Thile and the Galt House Fire Alarm (Moonshiner Magazine, October, 2000) 

Nickel Creek at Schuba's (Chgo Trib, May 9, 2001) 

Nickel Creek - This Side, CD review (Chgo Trib, August 11, 2002)

Chris Thile--Deceiver, CD review (Chgo Trib, October 10, 2004) 

Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die? CD review (Chgo Trib, July 22, 2005)

Chris Thile, feature (Bluegrass Unlimited, June, 2007) 

Chris Thile--How To Grow A Woman From The Ground (Bluegrass Unlimited, 2007)

Chris Thile's Newgrass Gets A Little More Blue With His New Band (Chgo Trib, 12-28-07) 

Ex-Nickel Creek Player's Sound Packs 'Punch'  (Chgo Trib, Feb 17, 2008)

Thile plays Bach; Pikelny Plays Baker Plays Monroe (Chgo Trib, Oct 14, 2013)