Nickel Creek Rocks Oakland's Fox Theater

Posted on May 20, 2014 | by David Knowles

Nickel Creek Still

Bluegrass has scarcely been so bad-ass as when it is played by Nickel Creek. 

On Monday night at Oakland's Fox Theater, a sold-out crowd was shown the pure power that traditional acoustic music can have when played by a trio of genre-bending songwriters who also happen to be some of the finest instrumentalists in the world today. To be sure, the long hiatus from touring that the band took between their new album, A Dotted Line, and 2005's Why Should the Fire Die? added to sense in the room that something special was about to go down, but the historical context of the gig and the question of whether Nickel Creek would disappear again were overwhelmed by the precision and chemistry that the three musicians exhibited nearly 25 years after the band first formed. 

Sarah Watkins (fiddle), Sean Watkins (acoustic guitar), and Chris Thile (mandolin) took turns on lead vocal duties on crowd favorites like "Jealous of the Moon," and "When in Rome" and traded solos on complex instrumental numbers that hinted at such diverse musical styles as Led Zeppelin, Greek rembetika, bebop, Nashville country, and Earl Scruggs. 

Alternating between flatpicking and fingerstyle, Watkins' guitar work was spot on and often understated, and his sister's fiddle playing commanded respect. Upright bass player Mark Schatz lent bottom end to the procededings, rounding out the stellar interplay. 

While the Watkins siblings are a joy to hear live, there comes a point in a Nickel Creek show when you can't help but marvel at Thile's extraordinary abilities. Make no mistake, his 2012 MacAurthur Genius Award was well deserved. Thile, who is a dead ringer for actor Jude Law, is unrivaled on the mandolin, and ranks among the most creative soloists of this, or any age. 

On Monday, Thile gave glimpses of his talent, reeling off playful, dizzying runs that left many of the nearly 3,000 fans in the audience, this writer included, dumbstruck. 

Why would such a band, with such a devoted following, choose to part ways in the first place?

"It's because we ran out of instrumental titles," Thile explained. 

Well, here's hoping that well doesn't ever run dry again. 

Look an interview with Nickel Creek in the forthcoming issue of Acoustic Guitar. 

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