Nickel Creek pass through county on impressive musical journey
SUMMIT COUNTY – When they stepped onto the scene, they were little more than children – incredibly talented children.Two of the trio were eight 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 twenties, brother-and-sister team Sean and Sara Watkins are still picking and bowing with Thile in a group that ballooned from humble beginnings to the vanguard of bluegrass music’s wayward child, “newgrass.”Nickel Creek has become synonymous with the recent revival of interest in bluegrass music, a tried and true genre that provides the foundation for much of their sound but hardly describes it.Still, it is different. A melding of polished instrumental talent, freewheeling risk and pop melodies, the band has wandered over an impressive musical landscape during its more than 10 years in existence.In the three years since the release of their self-titled debut album, the roller coaster has accelerated for the group. 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.The first time the group visited Summit County, it played a free show for a modest crowd at the Lake Dillon Amphitheater 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 tonight for a $28 ticket bought 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. Realizing that the figures on stage at bluegrass music festivals picking with greats such as Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and David Grisman hadn’t seen the close of two decades added a whole new dimension to the awe. 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 stop 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 destroy the momentum of audience enthusiasm 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. Instrumentally 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 site of the popular music shore. However, given their 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 a work and a little luck, brilliance may yet lie on the horizon.Aidan Leonard can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or firstname.lastname@example.org.