The origins of a southern California bluegrass band, Nickel Creek (formerly known as The Nickel Creek Band) started with a meeting of two pre-teen mandolin students, Sean Watkins and Chris Thile. Sean recruited his sister, Sara Watkins, to play fiddle, and Chris' dad, Scott Thile, played bass. At first, Chris played guitar and Sean played mandolin but later they decided to switch instruments. Nickel Creek's first performance was in 1989 at That Pizza Place in Carlsbad, California. Chris and Sara were eight years old and Sean was 12. After 10 years on the contemporary bluegrass circuit, Nickel Creek's self-titled third album went platinum in 2000. Now an international success, the young band members were home-schooled to accommodate their tour schedule, and Scott Thile was ultimately replaced by Derek Jones. The fourth album won a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Following a fifth studio album and a compilation album, the band announced an indefinite hiatus with the conclusion of the 2007 Farewell (For Now) Tour. The members worked on solo and side projects, but reformed in 2013 to plan a 25th anniversary celebration for 2014. That became the A Dotted Line album, released on April 1, 2014.
At the Beacon Theater tonight, Nickel Creek demonstrated why this band stands above most other bluegrass bands. First of all, the music retained its homespun quaintness, without any showbiz gloss. Secondly, the band played in a thoroughly contemporary manner rather than plundering the genre's history in order to authenticate itself. This was not a return to roots as much as it was a marriage of bluegrass with folk, pop and even indie rock. Nickel Creek opened the set with "Rest of My Life," which also opens the new album. The band did not saturate the audience with new songs, however. By the third song, the band was playing the title track of its groundbreaking This Side album. The 23-song set was not necessarily a "greatest hits" package either, as when the band covered Bob Dylan's somewhat obscure love song "Tomorrow Is a Long Time."
Nickel Creek's chief assets included its ability to make simple yet uncommon music. For the most part, the entire show was performed on guitar, bass, mandolin and fiddle (although late in the performance Sara briefly put aside her violin for a ukulele). The musicians shied away from incorporating other bluegrass instruments, instead highlighting modest song structure over versatility. The musical interplay, particularly on several instrumental compositions, was impeccable, as were the vocal harmonies. It would appear that working apart during the band's seven-year dormancy has given the unit the strongest possible comeback.
Nickel Creek performs at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn on July 24. In the meantime, visit Nickel Creek at www.nickelcreek.com.