Wednesday, May 9, 2001
NICKEL CREEK OFFERS STUNNING LOOK INTO FUTURE
By David Royko
If there were any doubts that Nickel Creek is not your father's bluegrass band, they were dispelled when the group lit into Harry Nilsson's "Think About Your Troubles" Monday night at Schubas, and proceeded to turn it into an off-kilter vehicle for improvising.
Bluegrass or not-they don't use a banjo-Nickel Creek is arguably the finest acoustic string ensemble operating today. That members range in age from 19 to 24 might not seem unusual until one considers they have been playing together professionally for over a decade. Their material moves effortlessly from acoustic pop to jazz and newgrass, and it all carries the stamp of their distinctive sound.
Fiddler Sara Watkins is as impressive as a colorist, shading vocal tunes with sensitivity, as she is tearing through a showpiece such as "Cuckoo's Nest." The purity of her vocals, which would also work well in alternative rock, was among the group's major assets. Brother Sean's guitar picking, as well as his compositions such as "Ferdinand the Bull," place him in the top rank of progressive acoustic musicians as an instrumentalist as well as a songwriter. Bassist Derek Jones anchored the band with style and precision.
At the center of the quartet is Chris Thile, a force of nature with a flatpick. As he improvised, Thile's imagination repeatedly pushed him to enter mazes of his own design, and just as the listener began to suspect the path taken was impossible to resolve, Thile finished his idea perfectly and logically before entering the next door and beginning a new search. Hearing Thile solo was like experiencing the visceral rush of an Art Tatum melded to the otherworldly beauty of a Mozart. To say Thile is as staggering a talent as has ever come out of bluegrass would be too limiting-few have emerged from any genre that compare with Thile's brilliance.
Thile's ability to drop into a whispering pianissimo at any tempo, in any register, including the ethereally high, where most mandolinists have to stretch for tonal accuracy, was breathtaking. This allowed Thile to shift his mandolin from something akin to machine-gun strafing to hummingbird flutters, with his tone-glasslike around the edges but pure wood at the heart-remaining delicate. His fastest runs can create the effect of a portamento approaching a true glissando, each note so perfectly placed they give the effect of sliding between them.
Nickel Creek is the future of American acoustic music, and the future never looked rosier.
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