Tues. Nov. 15
Charleston Music Hall
37 John St.
People in their twenties are often at a time in life when change is not only desirable, but necessary for coping. The three members of Nickel Creek, all in their mid- to late twenties, exemplify how to make that quarter-life transition with grace and humility on their third album, the recently-released Why Should the Fire Die?
Mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins, and her guitarist brother Sean have been playing together for well over a decade, having first united in a bluegrass joint/pizza parlor in their hometown of San Diego sometime around 1989. The trio spent their preteen and teenage years playing in competitions, picking, strumming, and bowing their way into the hearts and ears of influential players and fans across the country.
After they signed with mini-label Sugar Hill Records in 2000, Nickel Creek’s live show impressed contemporary bluegrass legend Alison Krauss so much that she agreed to produce their first major-label album, 2000’s Nickel Creek, and also helmed their second, 2002’s This Side.
“We never really had a big break,” Sara Watkins says, on the phone in a coffeeshop somewhere in America. “We were together for a really long time and got signed to a really little bluegrass label and got to make a record with Alison [Krauss] and eventually started selling more and more records. The process has been gradual … a very sane speed to take.”
Even though they entered the business and enjoyed success at relatively young ages, one of the most admirable things about Nickel Creek is their obvious, enduring dedication to making music on their own terms. Nickel Creek came out just as the O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrass and traditional country boom occurred, and both music critics and fans were quick to try to pigeonhole and corral the group into the narrow confines of a genre.
This time out, the band worked with L.A.-based producer Eric Valentine (Third Eye Blind, Smashmouth, Queens of the Stone Age, and other bands you probably wouldn’t naturally associate with Nickel Creek) and the result is a fantastic example of how well things can turn out when young, talented (This Side won them a Grammy), and popular bands embrace change but retain a unique, signature sound.
“Sonically, the new album sounds a little different,” Watkins says, “but really honest to our instruments, I believe. [Valentine] got a great sound out of all the tones … it’s incredibly pleasing.”
Why Should the Fire Die? is certainly a departure thematically from the third-person vignettes about lighthouses and mountains and such that make up a large chunk of their catalog thus far. After Thile went through a brief marriage and painful divorce, the trio decided maybe it was time to approach song creation in a more introspective, although not dramatic or necessarily autobiographical, way.
For the first time, the three collaborated on both the musical and lyrical aspects of the album, hatching ideas and then raising them together, like a trio of supportive parents.
“It’s interesting to discuss things together and see what makes sense to all of us and make sure that we’re communicating properly and in an authentic and hopefully effective way, and unique, as well,” Watkins says. “We don’t really know how to do it, we just threw ourselves into it, and that was some of the best advice we got about making the record for sure.”
The tone of the album overall is darker and more world-weary, with songs that center around infidelity (“Can’t Complain”), lost love (“Anthony”), and questioning faith (“Doubting Thomas”) nestled comfortably alongside the band’s signature spirited instrumentals (“Scotch and Chocolate” and “Stumptown”), Sara’s prettily breathy version of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and two rollicking (and, dare we say, rockish) numbers: album opener “When in Rome” and the explosive “Helena.”
Nickel Creek have always had a clean, poppy-but-not-cloying sound on record; to this effect, working with Valentine somehow both refines and dirties up their sound, giving listeners the same easygoing vibe but with a touch of sadness tinging the edges both melodically and lyrically.
Their live shows have always been involving and fun, and this tour should be no exception, with Watkins promising “songs off all the albums, and then a couple surprises.”
While they may wander through bluegrass, country, folk, and pop on the way, the winding path that Nickel Creek have taken to their comfortable level of stardom remains markedly theirs and theirs alone.