Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nickle Creek Concert Review

Nickel Creek: Veteran Sound from fledgling troubadours.

The Broome Community College Ice Rink, located in Binghamton, N.Y., housed 1,600 filled seats for its’ first ever concert. The stage was set up on the long side of the oval, looking across the ice at the bleachers. With seats on just one side, the management apparently felt it only necessary to remove the Plexiglas barriers used in hockey games from less than half the rink. This forced critical midrange components of the sound to reflect back at the floor-seated portion of the audience. Despite this acoustical faux pas, the Nickel Creek sound man, utilizing the bands own mixers, effects and monitor system, did a good job of dialing in the sound and sending it off to the expertly placed and very clean-sounding front-of-house provided by Binghamton based Sound Concepts. The result was relatively good sound on the floor and exceptional quality in the bleachers, very full but never too loud.

The fairly conservative audience, made of more middle-aged folk and families than college students, roared thunderously when the band took the stage. They opened with my favorite cut off the new CD, “Smoothie Song”, and although it was a bit spoiled by some hurried sound tweaking during its’ first few moments, it quickly settled in to a premonition of the evening’s heart-warming musical feast.

The group looked comfortable on stage, the guys in T-shirts, violinist Sara Watkins looking most fetching in a spaghetti-strap top and all wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Sara played well to the audience, often strolling out of the main spotlights to get closer to the crowd, leaning forward and throwing bow flourishes like kisses to the crowd. Many songs elicited cries of recognition from the onlookers and the group moved and danced with the crowd as well as each other during especially passionate jams. Chris Thile was the most animated and led me to wonder, why do mandolin players tilt their heads when they solo? Some stage patter did sound rehearsed and stilted though, and a few stage movements looked a bit contrived. I suspect someone had chastised them for not being visually entertaining enough, like you would expect them to grab themselves and moonwalk or something.

My introduction to Nickel Creek had been their 2002 release, “This Side”, a tightly controlled, somewhat commercial product produced by Allison Krauss. That album, I guessed, had been born of the group’s desire to explore the more pop side of their creations and made me wonder if they knew where their strengths lay. Later, those very songs, heard in the context of that concert, kept their folk roots and blended seamlessly with the band’s more traditional tunes and inspiring instrumentals. I had also wondered if folks so young, (Sara Watkins and Chris Thile are a mere 21 years old) even with eleven years of playing out, would exhibit the musical maturity that often makes a seasoned performer far outshine a child prodigy. By the third song my words were eaten whole, as the quartet raised the hairs on my neck and brought a smile to my face with expertly executed and beautiful music.

What I saw was not the package for sale Ms. Krauss had created, but boundless, unstoppable musical joy. Rising and falling, first sweet, then nasty and grooving. At once a simple ballad, then suddenly metamorphosing through intertwining melodies combined in a way they had never quite been before.

Conversely, vocals were not the band’s strong point, with most of Sara’s and Chris’s vocals sounding breathy and almost falsetto. The players are aware of their vocal sound and apply it well in their songwriting, but the quality of the instrumentation points up the difference. Guitarist Sean Watkins, the elder statesman of the band at 25, has the strongest voice, but the most shy personality of the group, keeping him from using his voice often enough or to it’s fullest potential. Only on the fifth song of the evening, “The Face of Trouble”?, did Sara show her vocal mettle and Chris did not get his voice warmed up until late in the show with a blues tune and a Dylan cover. The whole group had better projection on harmonies than lead vocals as evidenced on a raucous cover of the Beatles “Taxman”.

Eleven of the thirty tunes were instrumentals, all every bit as fine as the creations of the elders of newgrass. Chris Thile's “House of Tom Bombadil” was a warm bluegrass tune, not the staccato sonic assault of traditional bluegrass. Flowing yet well defined by implied percussion born of chunky rhythms supporting arpeggios flying like wild winds. Late in the show they played “The Opening Song” featuring Sara’s fine fiddle work in a Mark O’Conner/Yo-Yo Ma style creation. Other instrumental tones ranged from the dissidence of modern jazz to technical acrobatics like those in The Dixie Dregs’ “Chips A’Hoy”. The second instrumental of the evening opened with a guitar/mandolin duet with obvious classical inspirations, morphed into a two-step, then flowed through modern jazz style dissidence and back again. A recent interview in the fledgling ‘Frets’ magazine had Sean commenting on taking inspiration from classical lately and this tune illustrated that quite well.

Nickel Creek played at the Country Music Awards on Nov. 6, 2002 and were nominated for the Horizon award and Vocal Group of the Year. They took home no awards, but to be nominated is surely a good thing for a group that I would not even call country. With Jerry Douglas taking home Musician of the Year, the CMA show they are there for more than just Alan Jackson fans, (who swept the awards) and know quality when they see it.

What lies ahead for Nickel Creek? Already on CMT, how about VH1 or even MTV? Will there be Creek-heads, following the band to every venue and selling out every show? Can we expect Chris Thile lunch boxes, Sean Watkins cologne and ‘Barbie’s fiddl’n friend Sara’? How about Nickel Creek tribute bands with names like ‘Penny River’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. Assuming they avoid the many pitfalls of young stardom, the sky is the limit for these fledgling troubadours.

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