Young bluegrass upstarts? You bet! Thumbing their cute noses at the 'new traditionalism' inspired by the staggering success of the orthodox bluegrass soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Californian guitar-fiddle-mandolin trio Nickel Creek mix their bluegrass — a genre not known for its flexibility — with an incongruent dose of, well, just about everything.
From the time they bounded on stage at the Paramount like they were on pogo sticks to the final encore almost three hours later — performed without any amplification because the theater sound crew had already shut the power down — Nickel Creek tore through more musical styles than any jukebox, careening cheerfully from indie-rock (Pavement, Elliott Smith, Nirvana) to pop (the Beatles) to r&b (OutKast) and beyond (the Super Mario Brothers theme). In between the near-manic style jumping, Nickel Creek also played some fine originals from their two albums (including the just-released This Side), along with more traditional bluegrass favorites, as well as largely improvised instrumental pieces.
Nickel Creek is certainly young for a band this accomplished and diverse. The band members are all less than 25; they've been playing together since before they were teenagers, and two of the three members have already released solo records. The lovely Sara Watkins (sigh, my imaginary girlfriend, for sure) plays fiddle. She sings in a sweet soprano on many of the group's slower ballads. Her brother Sean Watkins plays guitar and is the main songwriter of the group. In between them on stage, mandolin wizard Chris Thile shreds and sways like a true rock star, playing the heck out of his tiny instrument — strumming, strutting, and picking as though somebody forgot to tell him that he isn't holding a Les Paul and that he isn't actually in Pearl Jam. Chris is the most showy member of the band — his mandolin solos drew the most cheers from the adoring audience — but all three members of Nickel Creek are very technically accomplished musicians, dishing out chops that allude to their already-lengthy careers on the bluegrass circuit.
And they certainly make it look easy. Nickel Creek have fun playing music on stage and it shows. They literally beamed at the audience, and they interacted with each other with unforced intimacy. Their self-described "dorky" stage banter succeeded by the sheer force of its earnestness:
Chris: "I'm dressed like a scrub today."
Sara: "You're not a scrub. You're dressed as… a… cool guy."
Sean: "I have a lot in common with Sara, we live in the same house. We have the same parents. Yes, she's my sister."
They complained about not being funny, which was sometimes true, but the audience ate up every drop of talk — and the band somehow avoided what could otherwise have been embarrassing between-song patter.
At times, Nickel Creek's youthful enthusiasm and So-Cal sunniness struggled against the material they chose to play. Their cover of Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" just didn't have the resigned sadness that makes that song so powerful. Their tossed-off "Lithium," wedged into an Irish-style folk instrumental, nailed the sing-songy chorus but didn't writhe with the desperation of the Nirvana original. I wondered whether they got the idea that day — "Hey, we're in Seattle, let's cover Nirvana" — which would again attest to their prowess on their instruments, but during these thinner performances, it was clear that technique can't always triumph over feeling.
On more familiar ground, however, Nickel Creek were unstoppable; highlights included a sparse version of "House Carpenter" and "Should've Known Better," a tear-jerker sung by Sara that the band stretched out beyond its typical four minutes. They played almost every song from This Side, and the live performance of those excellent songs solidified that record's secure place in my Top Ten for 2002. Finally, their improvised songs gave them each opportunities both to solo and support the other two members.
Throughout the show, the audience cheered, gasped, laughed, and begged for more. As I said, long after the Paramount's sound crew had shut down and gone home, Nickel Creek re-emerged from backstage, instruments in hand.
Chris: "You see the holes in these instruments? That means they're acoustic. And THAT means we don't need electricity to keep playing for you, but you need to keep really quiet, ok?"
More dorky stage banter? Maybe so, but while Nickel Creek delivered their final encore, the audience never made a peep.