Few bands would dare vie with a Red Sox game, but it takes even more chutzpah to literally work the other side of the street. That's exactly what happened this past Thursday, as the Sox/Devil Rays game got underway at Fenway Park, while another line was forming just a few feet away - for Nickel Creek's sold-out show at the House Of Blues. It was the first time in over 6 years that Nickel Creek played the New England area, and the first since the band's hiatus around the same period. "You're beautiful! How's it going?" asked frontman Chris Thile, and the HOB crowd erupted in cheers and wild applause. This was a night many in the house had waited a very long time to see, and Chris, along with bandmates Sara Watkins (fiddle), Sean Watkins (guitar), and upright bassist Mark Schatz knew the stakes were high.
But as soon as the quartet gently slid into the bluegrass waltz, "Rest Of My Life" (the opening to their comeback album, A Dotted Line) any and all doubts were quickly put aside. The trio's harmonies were in the pocket right out of the gate, and they proceeded to work though the song's deft time and key changes. As marvelous as the new recording is, the added benefit of live performance really gave the new material wings, and imbued a fresh energy to past hits as well. "Scotch And Chocolate" (a crowd favorite, which appeared on Why Should The Fire Die?) followed: like other Nickel Creek instrumentals, a simple but intriguing melody is imbued with some dark orchestral touches before morphing into what can only be called "bluegrass fusion" - blazing fast solos, complicated arrangements and hints of classical and jazz find their way into a technically precise performance that still manages the feel of live improvisation, so much so, it's sometimes hard to know when they actually are improvising. Luckily, with Nickel Creek, you can marvel at both their virtuosity and inventiveness.
The momentum continued through "This Side" (the title track of their 2002 release), the spirited country-rock of "Destination" (one of a handful of songs showcasing Sara on lead vocal,) and the sweetly affecting "A Lighthouse's Tale", which fans instantly recognized on it's opening bars. Sometimes, Chris's amazing dexterity on mandolin overshadows the fact that he can also be a haunting singer, and "Lighthouse" was a stellar example of both his storytelling style and emotive delivery. In between songs, Chris, Sean and Sara engaged in the kind of playful, often mischievous banter you'd find among siblings - reaffirming the familial vibe that began when the trio were barely in their teens. Before introducing his homage to doomsday preacher Harold Camping (the by turns charming and acerbic "21st of May"), Sean remarked: "I don't write many sad songs these days....I'm feeling pretty happy right now. So you'll have to excuse me while I try to get into character....." - then turned his back to the stage, whereupon Chris came over and pretended to stomp on his foot, and Sara dryly followed with "He's a method singer."
Ok, in print that does seem as corny as it was - and they (and perhaps banjo picker Steve Martin) are the only folks who can get away with that. But before long, the band tore into "When In Rome", and all was forgiven. During a concert in which virtually every tune felt like a highlight, it's tough to single out particular tracks, but the songs that elicited some of the strongest ovations came from the new album: "Hayloft" (a cover tune written by Canadian indie-rockers Mother Mother) featured dizzying syncopation and pristine harmonies; "You Don't Know What's Going On" found Chris rattling off verses like a stream-of-consciousness rant, played at breakneck speed (as was the ripping instrumental "Elephant In The Corn" - believe me, it was quite the spectacle to witness concertgoers who wouldn't find their way to a square-dance at gunpoint, dancing and clapping in a Hee Haw like frenzy.)
There was no way there wouldn't be an encore, however, if the crowd was cheering for one-upmanship to escalate, they were treated instead to the unexpected clog-dancing of upright bassist (and Boston native) Mark Schatz - while it added a air of levity to the proceedings, Mark's footwork had its moments of Flatley-esque precision. It should also be noted that throughout the proceedings, Schatz's bass was both the anchor and the beacon to Nickel Creek's musical alchemy - his playing adding elements of jazz, contemporary classical and Appalachian nuance exactly when and where needed. Sara's lovely reading of Sam Phillips' "Where Is Love Now?" benefited from gorgeous, three-part harmonies and her subtle, hi-lonesome fiddle, and closed the evening on a wistful, yet hopeful note. Opening act The Secret Sisters, (a quartet from Muscle Shoals, AL and Tulsa, OK respectively) opened the night with a short set of tuneful, genre-melding pop that combined the soulful swagger of Adele, the country-inflected sass of KT Turnstall, and the soul/alt-rock bravado of The Black Keys. While their sound couldn't exactly be defined as distinctive, they were adept at strong hooks, singalong choruses and powerful female vocals. They're also a pretty young band - in time, they could emerge with a unique voice and some timeless songs, especially if they look to Nickel Creek for tutelage.