Some bluegrass acts are easy to imagine live, but not Nickel Creek. Each song on their albums is such an intricate patchwork of textures that you wonder if they can recreate anything like it outside of the studio.
They can, and they did on Tuesday night at Stage AE. The pleasure of watching them is to see their effortless collaboration. In the instrumental breaks on “Rest of My Life,” Chris Thile‘s picking on the mandolin locked into Sean Watkins’ guitar to create a pattern as perfect as a spider web. And on “Anthony,” the rest of the band encircled Sara Watkins and sang tight harmonies into a single mic as if they were the Carter Family.
At this point, Mr. Thile might as well be related to the Watkins siblings. When the band formed in 1989, all three members were under 13 -- you can watch them on YouTube as prepubescent wonders in cowboy hats. They toured with John Mayer and Gillian Welch, worked with Allison Krauss and Bela Fleck, and won a Grammy before deciding to go their separate ways in 2007. But their “Farewell (For Now) Tour” promised a reunion, and their new album, “A Dotted Line,” does not disappoint.
With the backup of bassist Mark Schatz, who is himself a giant in the acoustic scene, they played songs both old and new. The opening notes of every number drew cheers from the crowd. The musicians were having fun, and you could tell. Ms. Watkins windmilled her arms as she sang. Her fiddle playing went from rhythmic chops and shuffles to wistful sighs. Mr. Thile twisted and bounced across the stage, grimacing and grinning as his fingers flew over his mandolin.
He is a unique figure in the music scene: a genre-exploding folk-musician-turned-rock-star. He can play Bach-influenced runs on the mandolin while his lower half is engaged in an Elvis-like hip-swing. On Tuesday, he was at the top of his game. Even when singing about death, you could see a small smile twitching the corners of his mouth.
Along with their usual hits, Nickel Creek played a few that they have not performed live for almost a decade. There was a 9-year-old girl in the front row who held a sign that said, “Hi, I‘m Afton! Thanks for naming me!”
“The last time we played that song live you wouldn’t have been old enough to come to the show,” Mr. Thile said. “The second verse, anyone remember how it goes?” After looking at the lyrics on an audience member‘s iPhone, he launched into “Sweet Afton,” his setting of a Robert Burns poem from Nickel Creek‘s self-titled album. In a concert full of inspired performances, that waltz may have been the most beautiful.
Eric Boodman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3772, or on Twitter, @EricBoodman First Published July 23, 2014 12:00 AM