Exactly three years prior to Nickel Creek’s concert on May 21st at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, the apocalypse nearly happened. “It was a close one,” guitarist Sean Watkins jokes, “But we made it… I think.” Zealous radio jockey and Christian evangelist Harold Camping’s infamous prediction was, of course, wrong by a long shot, but it did have the benefit of inspiring one of the strongest tunes off of A Dotted Line, the newgrass trio’s first studio outing in nine years. “They laughed when Noah built his boat / Then cried when came the rain,” Sean sings in his gently satirical gospel number. “They mock me now, but I will float/On the 21st of May.” Fortunately, Nickel Creek, in celebrating 25 years of making music, did a lot more than float during its 23-song setlist.
Though a fine setting for Nickel Creek’s music, the Wiltern Theatre is one of L.A.’s stranger venues. Located in the city’s Koreatown district, the theatre boasts one of the most striking examples of Art Deco design on the West Coast, all the more striking given the dissimilarity of the buildings that surround it. Driving down Wilshire, it is impossible to miss the building’s unmistakable faded green color. The oddity of the place is reflected in its concert lineup: The evening’s show will be followed up in coming weeks with performances by Swedish groove metal pioneers Meshuggah (who are also doing a 25th year celebration show) on June 6th and electronic music legends Devo (June 29th). Nickel Creek, of course, have long been renowened for genre-melding, bringing together indie, bluegrass, folk, and pop into an unforgettable mold. The eclecticism of the Wiltern is as good a home as any.
Two hours before the show, a few people have started a line around the theatre; not but an hour later, the line wraps around the block. The sense that people have been waiting a long time for this event is evident to any of the numerous passersby; several attendees are seeing the trio for the second time on this leg of the A Dotted Line tour, having either attended the Oakland or San Diego concerts a few days before. It is with equal parts devotion and long-standing anticipation that the considerable crowd begins queuing into the theatre at 7 p.m.
Opening the show is the Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based duo The Secret Sisters, comprised of Lydia and Laura Rogers. (As far as location goes, one would be hard-pressed to find a better place to start a country band than Muscle Shoals.) The duo, who often draw comparisons to The Everly Brothers, are an excellent opener; those Nickel Creek fans who wish the trio played more traditional fiddle tunes should find a lot to love in the music of these sisters. Though the two have a distinct sound, especially in the pop-saturated country genre of the present day, they’re closer to traditional than Nickel Creek.
Lydia and Laura harmonize beautifully throughout their 35-minute setlist, bringing a sweet grace to gentler tunes (“Bad Habit”) and a fierce gusto to their darker experiments (the murder ballad “Iuka”). Personality-wise, however, the two are significantly different. Lydia is fairly quiet and reserved; on the few occasions when she does speak, it’s difficult to hear her — even Laura asks for clarity at one point. Laura, by contrast, is openly jovial, bouncy, and charming; she makes plenty of jokes about the “backwoods” South and about how country music is inherently depressing. Her best line comes when she describes “Dirty Lie,” a half-completed Bob Dylan number the two finished after prodding from producer T-Bone Burnett. While detailing the shock she and Lydia had upon finding out their opportunity to (belatedly) co-write with Dylan, Laura says she told Burnett, “Bob Dylan isn’t real, he’s a mythical creature.” Mythical or not, “Dirty Lie” is the strongest tune of the set, finding the sisters giving off a sultry, ‘50s lounge vibe.
By the time the two are wrapping up their set, the audience is definitely ready for Nickel Creek to step up, though they also aren’t clamoring for The Secret Sisters to leave. As far as opening acts go, these two Southern belles gave this audience more than they could have asked for.
Following a 30-minute building of anticipation in the audience, the lights dim, and Nickel Creek walks up onto stage. The trio fittingly opens with “Rest of My Life,” the opening song from A Dotted Line, whose subject matter is the progression from “the dry sea of solo cups” of one’s youth to “the rest of life” that follows when one is forced to wake up the morning after an extravagant party. Those in the audience who have followed this band since their days touring the California bluegrass circuit as baby-faced youths — a cursory glance at the audience suggests there are at least more than a few — likely view this show as a growing-up moment, and with good reason.
Throughout the voluminous set, Nickel Creek demonstrates that while the youthful vivacity that made their three major studio efforts from 2000-2005 so exciting is still present, maturity has also arisen co-terminus with that youthfulness. A rarity in modern music, Nickel Creek have grown up without shedding the best parts of their younger phase. Hearing the trio rip through the adorably-titled instrumental “Ode to a Butterfly” — which mandolinist Chris Thile wrote at the tender age of 16 — is an impressive reminder that for all in Nickel Creek’s music that is endearing, these are also highly practiced, prodigious adult musicians. So prodigious, in fact, that at one points Sean snaps a string on his guitar. (Thile: “Sean, did you just rock a G-string clean off?” Sean: “That’s right, Chris.” Thile: “That’s hot.”) The bow for Sara Watkins’ fiddle has multiple hairs hanging loose throughout the show.
“Ode to a Butterfly” is but one of many jaunty instrumentals in the setlist: the Irish folk-indebted “Scotch and Chocolate” pops up early in the show, and the zany “Elephant in the Corn” gives the later stretch of the show a healthy dose of momentum. It’s the vocal pieces, however, where the trio really shines, and each musician has a song where they stand out the most. Fitting to the day of the show, Sean nails “21st of May,” one of A Dotted Line’s ace cuts. Sara’s honeyed vocals make the Bob Dylan cover “Tomorrow is a Long Time” as powerful as it was back when it was recorded for Why Should the Fire Die? in 2005. And though he has joked about it in the past, Thile’s tender delivery on “The Lighthouse’s Tale” remains a Nickel Creek essential.
Also of note, beyond the singing and the instrumentation, is the movement of the musicians: On their inspired cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft,” the band brings all the energy of the studio version of the song without the benefit of the drums in that version. Thile is especially fun to watch during “Hayloft”; his tall and lanky physique — not unlike Gumby, one might say — is bent every which way as he hops about the stage.
Also of note is the performance by bassist Mark Schatz, who functions as a rhythmic jack-of-all-trades throughout the set. “Ode to a Butterfly” opens with Schatz playing percussion on himself, slapping his thighs and torso in rhythm to Thile’s mandolin before picking up the bass. During “Cuckoo’s Nest” in the encore, Schatz tap-dances on a large wooden board while the trio runs through some dexterous instrumental passages. Nickel Creek have utilized a few bass players in the past, but Schatz, better than any of the others, is able to keep up with the restless energy of the music, all the while adding a great deal of personality.
By the end of the night, fans would be hard-pressed to muster any complaints. Of course, setlist grumblings are inevitable (I personally was hoping to hear “Green and Gray”), but given the broad range of songs they performed, disappointment seems unlikely. Following a seven-year hiatus from playing and a nine-year gap in between studio records, Nickel Creek haven’t lost a single step. If anything, the nine years — long a wait thought it was for fans of the band — were absolutely necessary to turn out the incredible music these musicians are making now.
Given how good A Dotted Line and this show at the Wiltern are, it would be difficult to say that the band should take as long as it likes in making new music; after all, though it may have been worth it, nine years is a long time. But, as the sold-out Wiltern crowd no doubt realized following the final, longing notes of “Where is Love Now?,” with wait comes reward — and what a reward this evening was.
Rest of My Life
Scotch and Chocolate
Jealous of the Moon
21st of May
When in Rome
Tomorrow is a Long Time
Ode to a Butterfly
You Don’t Know What’s Going On
Somebody More Like You
The Lighthouse’s Tale
Elephant in the Corn
When You Come Back Down
First and Last Waltz
Where is Love Now?