Nickel Creek passes through county on musical journey
SUMMIT COUNTY – When they first stepped onto the scene, they were little more than children – incredibly talented children.Two of them were 8 when they first played together. By age 16, one of them, mandolin maestro Chris Thile, had two records under his belt.Now, well into their 20s, the brother-and-sister team of Sean and Sara Watkins is still picking and bowing with Thile. Their group, Nickel Creek, has ballooned from humble beginnings to burst forth as the vanguard of bluegrass music’s wayward child, “newgrass.”Nickel Creek has become synonymous with the recent revival of interest in bluegrass music. The tried-and-true genre provides the foundation for much of the band’s sound but hardly encompasses it.A meld of polished instrumental talent, freewheeling jams and pop melodies, the band has wandered over an impressive musical landscape during its more than 10 years in existence.Three years since the release of its self-titled debut album, the band has also ridden a roller coaster of fame and critical reknown. Appearances on copious national broadcast outlets, international tours and substantial radio play of its new material has buttressed the group’s stature as an emerging force.But despite the success, “emerging” is still the appropriate word.When the group visited Summit County in mid-2000, it played a free show for a modest crowd at the Lake Dillon Amphitheatre in the rain. When it seemed the weather might dampen some spirits, the band invited the audience up on stage for what turned out to be a wowing, intimate performance.While that type of musical performance may well again be in store for a stop in the county tonight, the venue and price will be just a bit different. The Park Lane Pavilion in Keystone will now play host. Tickets are $28 at the door.That might seem like a coming of age, which in a sense it most certainly is, but the group’s music tells a slightly different story.Nickel Creek’s debut was impressive by all accounts, but the age factor played no small part in attracting attention.As the three played on stage at bluegrass music festivals, picking with greats such as Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and David Grisman, their relative youth only added to the awe they inspired in many fnas. It also helped forgive the subsequent small stumbles into what may have been ill-advised territory.As the group matured, growing pains – both musical and performance-based – became evident in performances such as a show at the House of Blues in Chicago. Paired with bland opening act Glen Phillips – formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket – the group tripped from soft melodies to energizing riffs only to undermine its momentum by wafting away into lethargy once again.In terms of performance, that seems to have corrected itself somewhat in the intervening years. At a recent outdoor festival in Boulder, the group played the crowd more deftly, demonstrating an evolved, nuanced understanding of what it was to grab and hold the attention of its audience.However, doing so required a reliance on cover material and emphasized that, musically, the band still seems to be discovering itself. Its first album paired displays of instrumental virtuosity and precocious lyrics in some instances with a handful of compositions that rose only slightly above the level of filler material. Overall, the final product still managed to dazzle.With its sophomore effort, the group garnered a 2003 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Nevertheless, the material deviated from the group’s foundations without truly testing too many musical boundaries. Technically, it was simpler, with many melodies hinting towards mass-market appeal.Indeed, for much of the risk and technical brilliance that could make this group great, it’s often better to look at its members’ individual efforts. Both Thile and Sean Watkins have their own albums featuring collaborations with some of the heaviest musical hitters in their broad-ranging field, from bassist Edgar Meyer to banjo innovator Bela Fleck and Dobro great Jerry Douglas.As a group, Thile and the Watkins siblings seem to still be charting a course buffeted by powerful influences while still maintaining sight of the popular music shore. However, given the musicians’ achievements so far – and the number of years ahead of them -it is impossible to discount their nascent potential.When Nickel Creek flits briefly across the Summit County landscape this evening on its ever-evolving musical journey, locals may well have another chance to catch a band on the verge.And with work and a little luck, brilliance may yet lie on the horizon.
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