On Friday I took the night off from my normal playgoing duties and went to hear Nickel Creek at the new Nokia Theatre in Times Square. I brought along Sarah–it was the payoff for having previously subjected her
to a press preview of Lennon–and when the concert was over, she happily agreed that the slate had been wiped clean.
I’ve been talking up Nickel Creek ever since I first wrote about them in the New York Times four years ago:
At 19, 20 and 24, the fiddler Sara Watkins, the mandolinist Chris Thile and the guitarist Sean Watkins (Sara and Sean are brother and sister) are young and cute enough to guest-star in an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Friendly, giggly and almost alarmingly uncynical, they speak the it’s-like-you-know patois of southern California, where they grew up together and started playing bluegrass as children. If you were to run into them on a crosstown bus, you wouldn’t guess that they play in a musical idiom closely associated with the rural South. But, then, their sophisticated sound isn’t exactly rural–and neither are many of the fans who have bought their debut album, Nickel Creek.
“We play boundaryless music,” Mr. Thile said in an interview during a recent visit to New York, and his bandmates nodded in emphatic agreement.
Like Alison Krauss, the angelic-voiced fiddler who produced Nickel Creek, they blend hard-charging bluegrass with sweetly sung acoustic pop; like Edgar Meyer, the protean bassist-composer who moves from bluegrass to Bach and back again, they write carefully structured instrumental pieces that owe as much to classical music as to country. On stage, they ignite this volatile mixture with a high-energy performance style reminiscent of rock ‘n’ roll. The pencil-thin Mr. Thile chops wildly at his amplified mandolin, flapping and flailing like the tail of a kite in a high wind, flanked by the serene, apple-cheeked Ms. Watkins, who bobs with the beat, and her older brother, a no-nonsense fellow who stands stock still while he plays in the sober-sided manner of John Entwistle of the Who….
Sara, Chris, and Sean haven’t changed all that much since I wrote those words, except that their music has grown considerably darker and tougher, as you can hear on their newly released third CD, Why Should the Fire Die? In addition, the influence of Radiohead on their postmodern bluegrass-pop sound is even more apparent now (“We love Radiohead so much it’s stupid,” Chris told the audience on Friday). But they’re as friendly and giggly as ever, and they still put on a devastating live show. As the packed house shrieked over their last encore, I turned to Sarah and said, “I feel like I’ve been to a spa.” And so I did: it had been a hell of a long week and I was dead tired when we arrived at the Nokia, but three hours later I was as fresh as tomorrow’s bread.
A good thing, too, since I took the train to Boston first thing Saturday morning (well, at noon, anyway) to kick off a two-day theatrical sprint. It started with a performance by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project of King Lear starring Alvin Epstein, a legendary veteran of the American stage who co-starred with Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall, and Kurt Kasznar in the Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956, the year I was born. The next morning I took a cab to Logan Airport and flew from there to Washington, where I saw a matinee of Leading Ladies, Ken Ludwig’s new farce, at Ford’s Theatre (yes, that Ford’s Theatre). The cast included, of all people, John Astin (yes, that John Astin). I then hightailed it to Union Station and caught the next train back to New York, arriving just in time to spend a few minutes purring contentedly over the Teachout Museum’s latest acquisition, an etching by Hans Hofmann that I knocked down for an embarrassingly reasonable price, before falling into bed.
And that’s how I spent my weekend. How about you?
P.S. I also found time to update the Top Fives (don’t ask when, though). Take a look.