“Thank you, Charlottesville, for selling this place out,” Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile exclaimed midway through the reunited band’s Saturday night set at the relatively intimate 3,500-seat nTelos Wireless Pavilion. “It took us three tries here, but that’s a .333 batting average. Those are Hall of Fame numbers.”
Given Nickel Creek’s six-and-a-half-year hiatus, it should have been no surprise that their fans were eager for the band’s quarter-century anniversary tour; a line stretched nearly two blocks down the college town’s brick-paved Downtown Mall.
The Secret Sisters opened with a short, solid set of country crossed with doo-wop, delivered in a Deep South drawl that revealed the real-life siblings’ Muscle Shoals upbringing. Reflecting on their wealth of songs about relationships, eldest sister Laura introduced “Iuka,” a swampy, stormy murder ballad inspired by the Mississippi town’s reputation for allowing underage couples to elope. The pair’s golden harmonies—along with their sidemen’s lap steel flourishes and simple percussion—offered a fitting soundtrack for the setting sun on a warm spring evening.
But the night belonged to Nickel Creek. They began with “Rest of My Life,” which gave the crowd—diverse in age, if little else—plenty of opportunity to shout its thanks as the band teased the pauses between Sean Watkins’ opening guitar lines. As on A Dotted Line
, the track made a fine opener, with its hungover realizations of a midlife crisis affirming the maturation that’s happened since the band was last together.
Indeed, time apart seems to have treated the trio well. Not even a dozen shows into their reunion tour, the comfort of their interplay was clear. They took more liberties from the studio cuts than they previously had, too—not just on solos but when altering a fill or a run here or there.
Fiddler Sara Watkins, after all, came into her own vocally on her pair of solo Nonesuch releases, but she rare sounded better than when paired with Thile and her brother Sean. Since the virtuosic Thile launched the adventurous Punch Brothers, playing with Nickel Creek must require restraint for his often flashy tendencies, though he makes smarter, more elegant statements when he’s not racing to pick out a flurry of notes. Sean’s straightforward songwriting gets challenged—and improved—by Sara and Thile’s more adventurous instrumental approaches.
The set spanned Nickel Creek’s grown-up career—they weren’t even in their teens when they recorded their first album—with a rather even selection of songs from all but 2002’s This Side
. Despite the strength of the band’s originals, two of the highlights were covers, though ones they’d already committed to tape. Halfway through the set, bassist Mark Schatz took a break as the core trio stepped to one microphone at center stage for a delicate rendition of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” showcasing how captivating their music can be in the simplest of settings. Alternately, near the end of the show, the foursome tore into Mother Mother’s cheeky “Hayloft,” mimicking the jaunty original’s spiky licks and falsettos.
The setlist structure was surprisingly uneven: Slower ballads were couched by energetic instrumentals, causing the band to struggle, at times, to build and sustain momentum. Though the crowd finally rose to its feet as the band closed its main set with breakneck traditional The Fox,” the encore was lackluster. “Helena” could be a rather climatic closer, but lacking the bombast of its drum-filled coda, it continued the lull than began with “First and Last Waltz.” “Cuckoo’s Nest” picked the pace back up as Schatz made his way into the spotlight for a clogging routine. For a moment, at least, it seemed like old times again.
The second leg of Nickel Creek’s reunion tour will bring them closer to the Triangle, as the band plays Koka Booth Amphitheatre Thursday, August 14. Josh Ritter opens the 7:30 p.m. show; tickets are $35–$50.