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Nickel Creek’s Second Revival Is Something To Celebrate

Josh Goleman

In the fall of 2001, I enjoyed a dinner interview at a hotel in Louisville, KY with 20-year-old Chris Thile. The following night he would be named bluegrass music’s best mandolin player and win the IBMA Award for Emerging Artist of the Year with his band Nickel Creek. Earlier that day, I’d followed him around, watching him interact with fans, colleagues, and total strangers, including a little kid who gazed at the gangly and energetic musician and told him straight up: “You’re my hero.”

With me, Thile talked about his fascination with the mandolin, about the limitless prospects for bluegrass as music for the brain as well as the heart, and about his hopes for his band. “There’s a part of us that really wants to change stuff on a big level,” he said. “I don’t know if we can or not, but why not dream really, really big?”

There’s no better way to say it than mission accomplished. The trio of Thile plus his childhood friends Sean and Sara Watkins deserves a chapter all its own in the story of American music. Because just at the time when the surprise hit soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? revived the charms and earthy richness of early country and string band sounds, Nickel Creek offered another flavor of acoustic Americana - one that was futuristic, youthful and thrilling. They needed to part ways to keep growing as individuals, but they’ve held on to their personal connection and their innovative ethos. The evidence is in their triumphant new album Celebrants.

Nickel Creek took shape when Chris, Sean and Sara were children growing up in the bluegrass scene in southern California in the 1990s. Prodigiously talented and excitable, they began touring and recording, logging early albums in 1993 and 1997. Many of us fans saw the band when they were still tweens as they toured the festival circuit, and I was transfixed by Thile’s jaw-dropping solo instrumental albums for Sugar Hill Records starting when he was just 13 years old.

Nickel Creek shifted into a higher gear when Alison Krauss befriended them and produced what would become their self-titled breakout album. They blazed brightly between 2000 and 2007, releasing three acclaimed albums. They forced top-flight mandolin, guitar and fiddle playing into the national conversation about popular music, inspiring countless young musicians to explore bluegrass music’s roots and branches. They sold hundreds of thousands of records, soared on the video airwaves of CMT, and won a Grammy Award in 2002. Then, as they approached their 30s, Chris, Sean and Sara announced a hiatus and embarked on a “Farewell For Now Tour” that concluded with joy and wistfulness at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Good to their word, Nickel Creek has reunited, not once but twice, in symmetrical nine-year cycles. In 2014 they toured behind the album A Dotted Line, a 10-song collection that ranged from gentle original bluegrass to a spiky cover of Mother Mother’s indie pop gem “Hayloft.” It conjured the band’s beloved sound and chemistry but didn’t offer enough of the creative growth the individual members had pursued in the meantime. It’s not an album I’ve gone back to or count among their best, so between that and our everything, everywhere, all at once media landscape, I didn’t get sufficiently hyped up about the arrival of Nickel Creek’s Celebrants on March 24. By March 25th, I realized that I’d been blindsided by something rare and exceptional.

For one thing, the Creeksters’ many pursuits since their disbanding feel more apparent and influential, so here’s a partial list. Sean and Sara built a thriving scene around their Watkins Family Hour shows at the club Largo in Los Angeles, collaborating with major talents including Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple and Madison Cunningham. They released the duo album Brother Sister and two recordings conjuring the spirit of their Largo collective, including last year’s superb Watkins Family Hour: Vol. II. Meanwhile Sara made four solo albums then toured, recorded, and won a Grammy Award with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan in the trio I’m With Her. Sean also made solo records and more recently joined forces with string band explorers The Bee Eaters for a 2020 album. And Thile, who emerged from Nickel Creek as one of the most complete and innovative musicians in American history, formed his postmodern string band Punch Brothers, hosted public radio’s Live From Here for four years, toured and recorded with bass player Edgar Meyer, and won a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant.

All of that collaborative energy, stylistic diversity, and experience was brought to bear when Nickel Creek moved, with families and pets, into a house in Santa Barbara for a creative residency made of long writing and rehearsing sessions between sit-down meals. “The longer that process went on, the bigger the idea became,” Thile told NPR. “We were able to fantasize about taking a real big swing at something that would feel like you could kind of poke around in it, like one of these great video games where you feel like you're inside of a little world.”

A concept took shape, with songs cohering around themes of communication and human connection, perhaps inevitable between the pandemic’s isolation and the reunion of lifetime friends who’d lived through a lot of change. “My god it’s good to see you, right here in the flesh,” sings Thile in the opening line of the album’s title track, which stomps and claps with the sensation of an Irish Ceili. “Where we can turn the stuff we need to get off of our chests into something we can sing through the work that lies ahead.” And then in “Strangers,” one of the album’s early singles, the trio’s voices weave around each other on the subject of working past small talk and really meaning it when we say “let’s get together.”

Yet just as I don’t listen to Bob Dylan for dramatic sonic excursions, lyrics aren’t where a Nickel Creek album is going to sink or swim. The Watkins are finely tuned musicians with profound feeling for harmonies and vocals. Thile is a composer and improvisor of the highest order. All three have grown vastly as singers since the 2000s. So while once we saw the trio as youngsters stretching the parameters of bluegrass, on this new album they think and execute with a grand sense of architecture, in the lineage of Pet Sounds, Night At The Opera and OK Computer.

Yet the album is overwhelmingly performed in studio by the instrumentalists, not assembled through overdubs. The band has rotated bass players over the years, and here they’re bolstered by wide-ranging Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Mike Elizondo. He’s as spectacular as he is integral, mastering the timing of the bluegrass-leaning sections while undergirding the project’s more difficult elements with the structural mindset of a high-level jazz or chamber musician. Celebrants is intricate and ambitious, with powerful harmonic concepts, recurring motifs, and sweeping instrumental passages that rank among the densest newgrass music ever made.

The first inklings of the album’s unmitigated musicianship arrive in the middle of “Strangers” with its whip-smart fiddle solo by Sara. But with “The Meadow,” the fusion of voices and instruments gets truly hard core, as harmonic lines get bent and slurred like a living, breathing pedal steel guitar. The fugue-like singing and the dips into dissonance are boldly sophisticated. I get a similar thrill from “Going Out,” the first of the album’s instrumentals. It does indeed get into what jazz folks call “out” playing, leaving rules and plainspoken chords behind for a bit, making it so richly satisfying when the harmony comes home on the way into “Holding Pattern,” a Thile lead vocal that evokes Taylor Swift’s softly atmospheric folklore album of 2020.

The trio continues to play with bluegrass form in “Where The Long Line Leads,” on which Sara delivers one of the best vocal performances of her career, a forceful rock and roll tilt-a-whirl that concludes with a cheeky Bill Monroe yodel. Sean steps up with his own dynamic lead on “Stone’s Throw,” featuring more passages where the massive sound pouring out of the speakers is so much bigger than we’d think possible from four acoustic instruments. We have the band's muscular control and their longtime producer Eric Valentine’s background in hard rock to thank for that.

It’s quite a ride at 59 minutes, but the album never lags. I love the segue of the Philip Glass-evoking “To The Airport” into the sweeping instrumental “...Despite The Weather.” An interlude called “Water Under The Bridge” reprises with a lyric evoking “celebrants of the dissonance,” which is a good thing to be when sitting with music this tricky. Yet the final sentiments on “Failure Isn’t Forever” with its benediction line “‘cause it’s now and we’re all in it together” is something anybody can relate to. Sara says in that NPR interview that Nickel Creek became aware in the latter 2000s that they had to part ways to keep growing and that having farmed their native ground, they needed to let the soil rest. The enthralling sounds and thoughtful arcs on Celebrants suggest they didn’t just use that time apart wisely but that they each brought back something irreplacable to the collective.

Nickel Creek embarks on its first headlining tour since 2014 on April 15, including three sold-out nights at the Ryman Auditorium April 27-29.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org