Review by Bokonon
Photograph by Dave Weiland
Thursday night at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is usually something of a warm-up. That doesn’t mean it’s any lesser quality, simply that the biggest names tend to hit Friday and Saturday evening. Not so for 2014. The 25th Anniversary Reunion of Nickel Creek was easily the biggest news of the fest, and deservedly so.
Chris Thile and Sean and Sara Watkins, who evidently started picking in the womb, were long favorites of the fest, wowing everyone with their prodigious skills and raw youth. The trio is older now, sort of, with Sean topping out at a whopping 37 and the other two checking in at a withered and wizened (not!) 33.
At Oak Hill, the group instantly fell back into antics while also fulfilling dreams of veterans and newcomers alike. When they are on top of their game, say, “Reasons Why” and “Scotch and Chocolate,” yeah, they’re that good. As a composer and vocalist, Thile is an acquired taste, but when he pulls out something like “The Lighthouse’s Tale,” those sides of his psyche match his incredible artistry on the mandolin.
With that box in has hands the man is just frightening. Earlier in the day, he sat in on Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” with Aoife O’Donovan, whose rock-tinged set was satisfying in all kinds of ways, not least for its spontaneous Crooked Still reunion. Thile clearly didn’t know the tune, but instead of spiking it with a hot shit break, he played sweet, quiet and spare, showing off his skills by keeping them in check. That’s playing, folks.
The Creek kids offered plenty from their newest release, A Dotted Line, including a cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” and the wicked instrumental “Elephant in the Corn.” The distaff Watkins rocked the house — in an outdoor way — with the broken ukulele string romp of “Anthony” and “Destination,” suggesting she’s a bigger potential pop star than Thile, if still in his shadow (with, oh, everyone else in the world) as a picker. Sean scored with the plaintive “21st of May.”
The trio was accompanied by bluegrass journeyman bassist and festival mainstay Mark Schatz.
As noted, O’Donovan’s clear voice killed, cutting through the crowd on the hill with authority, beauty and maybe, just maybe a whisper of mystery (at least on “Beekeeper” and “Pearls”). In addition to Thile, Sara Watkins joined up as well.
Creek and O’Donovan grew up at Grey Fox, and they keep getting better year after year, just like the festival itself.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
NOTE: Aoife O’Donovan and her band will also be playing at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival at Dodds Farm in Hillsdale on Friday, August 1, as well as the FreshGrass Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams on Friday, September 19. Meanwhile, Nickel Creek’s mandolin master Chris Thile returns to town on Friday, October 10 for a concert with bassist extraordinaire (and his Goat Rodeo Sessions bandmate) Edgar Meyer at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy.
NICKEL CREEK SET LIST
Rest of My Life
Scotch and Chocolate
The Lighthouse’s Tale
The Smoothie Song
21st of May
When in Rome
Ode to a Butterfly
You Don’t Know What’s Going On
Somebody More Like You
The Ledge (Fleetwood Mac)
When You Come Back Down
The Elephant in the Corn