Nickel Creek’s Last Waltz (review)

Last night’s final stop on Nickel Creek’s “Farewell (for now) Tour” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium was upbeat and rollicking with only a slight whiff of funereal eulogy. The evening was more like a celebratory party after a funeral, than a funeral — well, except maybe at the very end. (Photo set.)

There were touches of reflection, however: Bela Fleck sitting in on a few tunes, including Texas Red from the Telluride Sessions, an album Chris Thile said he listened to endlessly when it first came out, which, despite Thile being seven years old at the time, I have no doubt he did. Likewise, Tim O’Brien sat in on several tunes. (Personal note: You know you have great seats when you have to move every time Tim O’Brien and Bela Fleck need to get up to go perform.) Scott Thile, Chris’s dad, played bass on a song — something he did when Chris, Sean and Sara were first starting out at ages 8 (Sara and Chris) and 12 (Sean). During an encore jam, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings joined in with Fleck, O’Brien and with Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench on a concert grand. Last group song, “I’ll Fly Away,” was as good as it gets.

Sara Watkins covering the Jackson Five’s, “I Want You Back,” was an unexpected show-stopper, but the deeply knowledgeable and long-time fan crowd (many who travelled from around the country to attend both nights of the group’s Nashville swan song) were into all musical facets of the concert’s three-hour, break-less performance.

Nickel Creek has already influenced a new generation of acoustical artists — they’ve shown how authentic, roots music can appeal to contemporary, young audiences without giving into production gimmicks or technique tricks. I’m sure few of the fans who have come to them via an alternative music pathway realize that, in some cases, they’re singing songs that stretch back centuries and continents in their origin. I wonder how many general fans realize the degree of their mastery of their instruments — the subtle dynamics Thile coaxes from a mandolin or bouzouki or Sara’s insertion of a harmonic lick in the context of a somber alt-rock song.

But really, who cares?

The home-stretch of the concert returned the group to their roots — hardcore, straight-ahead bluegrass. Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck stepping out of a 12-year-old Sara, Sean or Chris’ Sony Walkman to play along with their young proteges.

And then, after the hymn — another bluegrass tradition — it was just Chris, Sara and Sean on the stage of the Ryman — another classic, unforgettable moment in its incredible history — singing on stage-edge like it was the front porch of a courthouse during a bluegrass festival competition. With no amplification, they sang in prayerful benedictory fashion, a few lines from the title cut of their final album, “Why Should the Fire Die?”:

You’re shining still behind the clouds,
Saying I won’t figure you out
I like it true, but let me try
And try and try for the rest of my life
I’m not scared of being alone
I’m not scared of being alone, being alone
I’m just happier being confused
Beside the fire, as long as it’s with you
Why should the fire die
My mom and dad kept theirs alive
It’s getting late, she says goodnight
I fall asleep, I’ll be all right.

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