Show Review: Nickel Creek at the Fox Theater, Oakland

by Tom Gilbert
Posted May 21, 2014 at 11:31pm

Most bands rarely make it to five years, let alone 25.

Formed in 1989, reunited progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2014 with a new album and tour.

And lucky for me, I got to witness one of the band’s comeback shows.

Nickel Creek are a double threat in that they possess Grammy-level songwriting ability, and they deliver with unearthly, A-list studio player chops. This is a deadly combo.

If you’re at all curious, do a quick search on YouTube where you’ll discover a pint-sized Nickel Creek shocking audiences with prodigious chops and spot-on harmonies from way back in 1989. It’s clear they have a natural talent, but then playing as a unit for 25 years (with a short 7-year lapse) helps too.

In 2006, after five albums and a number of Grammy Awards, Nickel Creek announced they would no longer be recording as a group and that touring would cease for an indefinite period. In retrospect, the “quitting while you’re on top” method is respectable, but it certainly left fans heartbroken and wondering if they’d ever get a chance to witness the band again.

Fast forward to February 2014, and Nickel Creek announced the big news that they were back with not only tour dates –– but a full length album, A Dotted Line. During Monday evening’s performance at the Fox Theater in Oakland, fans were treated to a number of tracks from the new release, plus a generous helping of the band’s greatest hits from their 25 year existence. The trio were also joined by upright bassist Mark Schatz, who fit right into place with the band and provided well-placed low end.

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At the group’s center is Chris Thile, who is quite simply a genius of the mandolin. Watching him on stage is almost humorous at times. He’s a bit of a lanky fellow, and seeing him manipulate this tiny instrument is a trip. “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and “When in Rome” were standout vocal performances for Thile, and his solos during instrumental numbers were inspiring and on another level.

Sara Watkins, Nickel Creek’s only female member, deserves credit not only for her stellar fiddle playing, but also for her close-to-perfect voice. She’s a commanding singer, and for songs like “Reasons Why” and “Anthony,” she maintained a perfect balance of control and vulnerability.

Watkins’ brother, Sean, held down stage-left with expert acoustic guitar playing and singing. One of his highlights was “Somebody More Like You,” which demonstrated his role as a key player in NC’s songwriting department. His solos were blazing; they seemed to almost come from nowhere, and were gone before I could process what had happened.

The members of Nickel Creek are each worthy of the spotlight, but coming from a background in bluegrass – where playing an ancillary role is oftentimes equally as important as taking the lead – they understand how to support one another too. “Jealous of the Moon,” one of the show’s standout moments, was evidence of this.

It's no surprise that the members of Nickel Creek have enjoyed success outside of the band, but seeing them together once again is a reminder of what these three artists are capable of when they combine their 25-year chemistry.

View tour dates and pickup the band's new album at nickelcreek.com.