Review: The Nickel Creek reunion tour proves that absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder

Rather than having a reunion, the three musicians picked it up where they left off six years ago, with a little more nuance and appreciation for what they’ve done–and continue to do–together. And a lot more fun.

nickel creek nashville

For the past 12 years, posts about music on this blog have been rare. And on those rare occasions, those posts have been almost 100% about the members of Nickel Creek. (The reason for why “just them” is buried in those posts, somewhere.)

This post is the next in that rare tradition.

My wife and I attended the group’s “reunion” concert last Friday at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. As I predicted last week, Friday night’s performance “was awesome” and did everything you’d hope such a “reunion” concert would do: (1) Rekindle memories among those who were in their late-teens and 20s during the early 2000s (not my demographic, in other words), who had Nickel Creek playing in the background during the period when musical tastes get seared into ones soul; and (2) Give musically-engaged fans a glimpse at what a group that started playing together shortly after birth (Sara and Chris were 8 years old and Sean, 12), would have done had they not stopped to head off in their individual directions six years ago.

Anyone familiar with the depth of their individual musicianships and mastery of their instruments (I’m guessing they each had passed 10,000 hours of practice by their mid teens) would know they’d pick up playing as a group where they stopped playing as a group–the way three siblings (two by birth, the other by bluegrass) can pick up anything harmonious, or not-harmonious, after a long absence.

More photos on my Flickr account.

Unlike most groups hitting the reunion trail, Sean, Sara and Chris aren’t trying to recapture old glory or wallow in nostalgia. They are all still young and still growing as musicians. And they haven’t been out of sight as individual musicians. During the past six years, they have about a half-dozen albums among them, either as solo or group projects. Chris has recorded and toured with the Punch Brothers, won a Grammy for an album with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer; was the youngest Macarthur Fellow of 2012 (the $500,000 “Macarthur Genius” award), and got married. (And for those who are into musical instruments, Chris added to his tool-set the mandolin someone of his talent and mastery should have.)  Sara also got married, recorded two successful solo albums, was the first-ever guest host of A Prairie Home Companion, and also toured as a “guest member” of the Decemberists. Sean has collaborated on several recording and writing projects (Fiction Family, Works Progress Administration) and continues to regularly perform with Sara.

In addition to the tour, the three have also recorded a new studio album, A Dotted Line, that demonstrates the depths of their talent and dedication to mastering their collective and collaborative crafts. (And includes some potential hit singles in a couple of genres.)

Bottom line: Rather than having a reunion, the three musicians picked it up where they left off six years ago, with a little more nuance and appreciation for what they’ve done–and continue to do–together. And a lot more fun.

In hindsight, and IMHO, putting Nickel Creek on hiatus was not only the right thing for them to do, it was the necessary thing to do. The Watkins and Thile needed to “grow up” and develop as individuals (I am speaking in terms of their maturity as musicians, but common sense would suggest also they needed some maturity in other parts of their lives, as well.)

There was joy on the stage and in the audience last Friday night; another in a long line of historic moments that have taken place on one of the world’s most hallowed musical stages.

Compared to the final stop on their previous tour on that same stage, this show did not overly focus on them as a relic–rather it was all about pleasing the audience. There were no guest performers sitting in, something the farewell tour had in abundance. (However, there was a warmly received short set by the opening act, Secret Sisters.)

Had Thile and the Watkins not used the past six years to provide any of their various tribes of fans an endless variety of musical journeys to follow,  one could possibly complain that the album and concert are like a “more of the same” reunion tour with nothing new explored. However, after journeying with Sean, Sara and Chris from their explorations of classical to avant-garde to pop to progressive-bluegrass to roots and Americana and other genres I’ve overlooked, the fans have paid their dues: they deserved a heaping dose of the classic Nickel Creek and that’s exactly what they got.

Except better. Far, far better.

Set list:

Rest of My Life
The Lighthouse’s Tale
Scotch & Chocolate
This Side
Reasons Why
When In Rome
21st of May
Smoothie Song
Sabra Girl
You Don’t Know What’s Going On
Cuckoo’s Nest
When You Come Back Down (The Angel Song)
Jealous of the Moon
Elephant in the Corn
Somebody More Like You
Hayloft (Mother Mother cover)
The Fox

Ode to a Butterfly
Where Is Love Now