Review: Nickel Creek at Majestic Theatre

Posted 10:39pm on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

Nickel Creek began playing its second song of the night — the instrumental Scotch & Chocolate — and Chris Thile started roaming.

The lanky mandolin player and vocalist left his station at center stage and made his way over to fiddler Sara Watkins, watching her fingers work the neck of her instrument, as his own digits flashed over mandolin strings.

After a moment, Thile drifted over to Sara’s brother, Sean Watkins, himself plucking at an acoustic guitar. Again, Thile intently studied his strumming, his own hands never ceasing their restless movements.

It was a fascinating glimpse of the intimate alchemy fueling this veteran trio — a glimpse offered more than once over the course of Friday’s 110-minute set at the Majestic Theatre — a collection of formidable musicians, working apart and in tandem, in gestures small and large, to showcase songs of their own and others with breathtaking skill.

Joined by bassist Mark Schatz, Thile and the Watkins siblings explored the breadth of their critically acclaimed catalog, weaving in selections from this year’s “comeback” album, A Dotted Line, while including staples such as When You Come Back Down, Reasons Why and Jealous of the Moon.

The group is enjoying something of a hybrid outing, it seems — a victory lap, marking 25 years as a band, mingled with a tour supporting a new record.

This current tour also marks a return to the stage for a group that, up until last year, was on hiatus for the better part of a decade: “We took six and a half years off because we ran out of instrumental titles,” Thile deadpanned Friday night.

Whatever the reason, the sold-out audience — blessedly, reverentially silent, save for the occasional appreciative whoop after a particularly deft solo — was all too happy to bask in the gorgeously rendered music, a squirrelly, not easily classified thing.

There’s hints of bluegrass, certainly, as well as progressive folk, but Nickel Creek didn’t shy away from doling out a nervy cover of Fleetwood Mac’s The Ledge.

So, denied any succinct description of the sound, all that’s left is superlatives.

The harmonies alone — three pure, ringing voices wrapped together tightly, like the unblemished petals of a rose — could inspire voluminous ramblings, but they were just one element worthy of praise.

Nickel Creek’s rollicking, rustic and occasionally reserved set list provided something for everyone — yes, even the allegedly “angry” patron with whom Thile shared a politely barbed exchange, prior to You Don’t Know What’s Going On — and showcased the prowess of a band beloved by a fervent few, but, for whatever reason, hasn’t broken out into the wider world of music fans.

It was a flawless evening of music, and watching the members of Nickel Creek move about on stage (for the sweet, dryly funny Anthony, the four musicians gathered around a single microphone, almost as if to just show they could), it was easy to get lost in the densely textured, nimbly rendered tunes. Thile, in particular, twitched as though an unseen hand had grabbed hold of his central nervous system and given it a merciless twist.

Sitting in the audience, it wasn’t hard to feel a similar jolt.

This is the raw stuff, the undiluted essence of music — the sort of experience that leaves you tingling, and desperately eager for another night just like it.

Opener Sarah Jarosz was more than up to the task of setting a high bar, with her terrific 40-minute set.

The Austin-based banjo/mandolin player and singer-songwriter (joined by a cellist and fiddler) pulled from her 2013 debut Build Me Up from Bones, and remade selections from Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Bela Fleck in her own, low-key image. It was a crisp, sparkling turn, and one which marks Jarosz as another ferociously talented Texan to keep an eye — and an ear — on.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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