Nickel Creek and the Secret Sisters’ Sibling Harmonies: Concert Review

Nickel Creek Performing - H 2014
Chris Willman

Nickel Creek Performing - H 2014

The three-part harmonies and combination of distinctive personalities makes for an alchemy that’s far more precious than mere nickel.

Americana icons’ welcome return results in some serious shredding, offbeat humor.

A two-month road trip came to a close for the pop-bluegrass band Nickel Creek Wednesday night at the Wiltern, and the trio seemed in a mood to celebrate. “This is our last night,” said fiddler Sara Watkins, “and then we drive home!”

“Of the tour, that is,” added mandolinist Chris Thile, getting a little bit ahead of the audience.

“Right, of the tour,” repeated Watkins. “I guess we should clarify that in this particular band.”

Anyone aware of the band’s recent history (or, to be more apt, lack of a recent history) got the joke. Nickel Creek’s new album, A Dotted Line, is their first in nine years, and during most of that layoff, fans assumed maybe the band was gone for good. Nickel Creek’s epic hiatus left a glaring hole right in the heart of the Americana music movement, which needs all the homegrown stars it can get. When their first two Alison Krauss-produced albums arrived in the early 2000s, practically hand-in-rosin-stained hand with O Brother Where Art Thou?, they were the youthful yin to that soundtrack’s old-timey yang, and suddenly acoustic string-band music had real pop cachet. And then they were gone, and even fresh Americana standard-bearers like the Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons haven’t quite recreated Nickel Creek’s unique combination of virtuosity and vivacity.

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Wednesday night, it felt like Americana finally had its Beatles back. That’s not so much to do with the roar of the crowd, though that was certainly substantial and ecstatic enough at this sold-out homecoming show. (The three members were or are Southern Californians, originally by way of San Diego.) It’s more about the whole being even greater than the sum of the parts… and there were some pretty great parts in the interim, between Thile founding the acclaimed Punch Brothers and Sara Watkins finding her voice on a pair of terrific solo albums. Any of the three can command a stage as a vocalist or instrumentalist in his or her own right, but the three-part harmonies and combination of distinctive personalities makes for an alchemy that’s far more precious than mere nickel. Apparently, they all now know that as well as we did.

These are all funny folks, and the comedic highlight came in some extended riffing toward the end of the two-hour set about the dilemmas inherent in coming up with names for songs that have no words, the likes of which constitute about a fourth or fifth of their material. “The reason we took six-and-a-half years off,” Thile explained -- dating their absence back to the close of their last tour — “is that we ran out of instrumental titles.” He admitted that they “dove right into the gutter” by allowing one of their signature instrumentals to be called “The Smoothie Song” (giving it “an emphatic two thumbs down and a sad bass note”), before introducing a new number with “the crown jewel of instrumental titles,” “Elephant in the Corner.”

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Serious shredding ensued on almost every number, vocal or instrumental. The players do know when to cut out the solos and leave a tender moment alone — as they did in “When You Come Back Down,” the closest thing in their catalog to a conventional ballad, or their final encore, a supremely sad cover of Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” But half the fun of a Nickel Creek show is the emotional rock-concert intensity that results when Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins tear into their mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar, respectively. (“Sean, did you just rock a G-string clean off?” asked Thile at one point, going for a string-band gag that never gets old.)

Thile, who has a bit of lanky Chris Martin presence to him, has always had a bit more of a center-stage role as singer/songwriter than the sibling partners on either side of him. But a decade of doing side-project shows at Largo as the Watkins Family Hour has helped Sara, in particular, and Sean catch up as vocalists. When she recorded Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” on 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?, her voice was still girlish and tentative; at the Wiltern, she rendered it with such accomplished, womanly knowing that it didn’t even sound like the same tune.

Sean Watkins seems content to spend less time in the spotlight and provide a rhythm guitar anchor, occasionally stepping up to prove his soloing chops are as good as anyone’s. His big number was the new album’s hilariously sprightly “21st of May,” inspired by the infamous prophecy by evangelist Harold Camping that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. “This song could not be more relevant, calendar-wise,” he pointed out, noting that their tour was (coincidentally?) ending right on the third anniversary of the world not ending.

You could write a book on how Nickel Creek embraces some of the tropes of bluegrass — like hiring a stand-up bass player and eschewing a drummer — while completely avoiding others. Rural themes rarely pop up, with the exception being a song Sara Watkins introduced as being “about getting it on in a hayloft”; that would be “Hayloft,” which is actually a hard-rocking, un-country cover of an alt-rock song by the band Mother Mother.

But the best way in which they avoid bluegrass tradition (and rock tradition, for that matter) is with a finely honed sense of dynamics that finds highs and lows and fluidity in nearly every number. The new album’s “You Don’t Know What’s Going On” and the older “Helena” were perfect examples of songs that begin gently and then build up to harmony-fueled panic attacks, with the curtaining behind the stage turning red to match the musical intensity.

Harold Camping got it wrong: There was rapture to be found on May 21, but three years later than expected, and isolated to a historic movie palace in L.A.’s Koreatown district. Hey, close enough.

The Watkinses weren’t the only sibling act anchoring this tour. Opening the show were the Secret Sisters, aka Laura and Lydia Rogers, who effectively marry Everly Brothers-style harmonies to twangy Chris Isaak guitar tones. Their T Bone Burnett-produced sophomore album, Put Your Needle Down, rocks out more than its predecessor did; to that end, the sisters had two electrified side musicians on stage to supply extra swampiness, although, like the headliners, they ditched the drums. As much as Nickel Creek avoids classic country lyrical trademarks of lonesomeness and death, the Secret Sisters embrace these. And since the Rogers gals might have the sweetest personalities as well as voices in music today, you were glad for the self-conscious invocations of murder or other imminent doom, to keep things from getting too honeyed.  

Nickel Creek Set list:

Rest of My Life?
Scotch & Chocolate ??
This Side ??Destination ??
Jealous of the Moon ??
Smoothie Song ??
Reasons Why?
21st of May?
When in Rome?
Tomorrow is a Long Time?
Ode to a Butterfly?
You Don’t Know What’s Going On?
Somebody More Like You?
The Lighthouse’s Tale?
Elephant in the Corn?
When You Come Back Down?
The Fox ??
First and Last Waltz ??
Helena ??
Cuckoo's Nest ??
Where Is Love Now