Nickel Creek performs two shows during Spoleto Festival USA | Photo provided

The opening song of Nickel Creek’s Spoleto Festival USA show, “Celebrants,” equates the idea of gathering as worship, a social space as a cathedral. 

“My God, it’s good to see you/Right here in the flesh,” Chris Thile sang as the first words from the stage.

On a cool night for May 31, amid the gnarled trees and hanging moss of the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard, it’s not a tough leap to make. 

It’s almost as if the venue might have been designed, all those years ago, for a band like Nickel Creek. And any downsides — the humidity, bugs, subpar viewing angles — faded away in the wash of the band’s virtuosic playing. 

Thile’s mandolin, Sara Watson’s fiddle and brother Sean Watson’s guitar made a remarkable blend. The shared ranges of their instruments often smoothed together in invisible junctures that left the melody player a mystery, if only for a moment.

Granted, the musicians weren’t in danger of ascending through the clouds. There were several false starts and a few sour chords, but they didn’t distract from the experience as much as heighten it. With the false ceiling of the Cistern’s canopy, there was already a striking sense of intimacy. A few mistakes and some charismatic crowd work only added to the feeling of sitting in on a Nickel Creek living room session.

Strong lighting choices did a lot to dress up the otherwise low-tech show, with flashes on beat for “Hayloft” and a spotlight spinning a beam through the trees on “Lighthouse.” However, the backlights were a bit strong. It seemed a steady Charleston breeze thinned the work of the fog machines before they could diffuse the house-aimed LEDs.

After a blazing rendition of the traditional folk song “The Fox,” Nickel Creek returned for an encore that ended with “When You Come Back Down.” The slow, wide-eyed love song might seem like an interesting closer at first, but it’s one of their most popular tunes.

But the real reason, or a happy coincidence, is that it made for a beautiful bookend to “Celebrants.” The crowd didn’t want to see Nickel Creek go, but the opening words of the song made it a bit easier.

Thile closed by saying, “You got to leave me now, you got to go alone/You got to chase a dream, one that’s all your own.”

IF YOU WANT TO GO: Nickel Creek sold out its June 1 show. Snippets of songs can be caught on the air near the Cistern Yard free of charge.

Desi Gillespie is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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