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Review Tue May 13 2014

Nickel Creek at Riviera, 5/9: Why The Fire Won't Die

I began listening to Nickel Creek when I was roughly eleven years old. I had just emerged from my 90s pop music phase, thankfully, when my dad put their self-titled debut on in the car one day. I was immediately captivated by the lush bluegrass riffs, and the sensibility of their vocals. It was a sound unlike anything I'd heard before, and I was immediately hooked by the unique and deliberate craft that was their sound.

Fast forward 12 years later, and I still hadn't seen this group live. That is due to the fact that Nickel Creek took a lengthy six and a half year hiatus to focus on solo projects for Chris Thile and Sara Watkins. Watkins branched out and delivered her own material, while Thile was all over the board, from solo material, to the group Punch Brothers, and even to recording with Yo-Yo Ma for The Goat Rodeo Sessions. As much as I adored their solo work, I so desperately wanted them to reunite.

Friday evening at The Riviera Theatre was like a dream for me and many other concertgoers who had not seen Nickel Creek in a live performance setting as of yet. I entered the concert hall eagerly at 8pm, and each seat and space on the large standing room floor had been occupied swiftly, with stray concertgoers checking for a seat with little to no avail.

The Secret Sisters led off the show, sisters Laura and Lydia Roberts hailing from Alabama who really emphasized their own identity apart from being Nickel Creek's opening act. They shared with the audience little anecdotes, such as their bafflement at our weather patterns, as they doted on us with a genuine "we've prayed for y'all all winter!" They also expressed their nervous energy surrounding the fact that they were opening for a band who had fans waiting to see them for almost a decade, and that enough was nerve-wracking. Despite their fears, they completely outdid themselves. Captivating the audience's attention, they packed punchy lyrics with exquisite harmonies and played songs off of their newest album, Put The Needle Down.

Their songs ranged from what they described as "our murder song" (yep, that happened), to "our example of sass-mouthin'." Their humor stood out as imminent throughout the entire set, as they kept the crowd engaged and attentive before Nickel Creek even took the stage. Their last song, "Bad Habit," introduced heavier material and emotions than their previous material, but it was also in my opinion, the strongest.

"I can't break this bad habit / 'Cause this bad habit's breaking me." All too real, the song spoke of any vice we've ever had as humans, and they honed in on the relatable nature of issues we have all faced before. Typically putting a humorous spin on them, the Secret Sisters were a gem of an opener for a band that has been waiting to reunite for so long.

While waiting for Nickel Creek to emerge onstage, the friendly gentleman seated next to me shared his first experience seeing Nickel Creek at a small venue in Montana years ago. He clearly returned to this show for the magic that they had created in a live setting, and I was excited to witness this for myself. The concert hall was filled with either individuals who were eager to listen to Nickel Creek perform one more time, or those who have been yearning to hear them for so long. So nostalgic for me, I then reflected on the first time I listened to This Side and Why Should The Fire Die? I watched their sound grow and mature, while never losing their initial breaths of genius. As the stage set-up was finalized, I eagerly anticipated what was to come.

As Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins stepped onstage, a deafening cheer filled the sold out concert hall. It was so loud, in fact, that one would have thought it was a powerhouse rock band finishing out a three-time encore. Their set began with "Rest of My Life," a beautiful ballad that set the tone for the evening. Instrumental "Scotch & Chocolate" took the stage next, which emphasizes their natural talent for pure bluegrass music, untouched by vocals, skillful and intricate. Beginning with a slow intro and building into a fury, the song showcased their immense talent and left the crowd in awe.

The group peppered classic crowd-pleasers in with their ambitious new material, off of their recently released record, A Dotted Line. Playing "This Side" had the crowd singing along softly with the group, and "Destination" brought them right back to a seat of watchful adoration for the group's natural skill. "The Lighthouse's Tale" followed, and they seemed to have brought a new maturity to the ballad. The sound was still pristine, however they were now older, and wiser. Thile's sly smirk indicated that just as we were envisioning our first listen to this song a decade ago, perhaps he was remembering these times nostalgically, too.

The group revved up old classic "The Smoothie Song" to include new additions such as a standing bass solo. Thile and Watkins later commented on the names for their instrumental ballads.

"The hardest part is naming them," Sara Watkins stated, as they ranked their instrumental tunes from least to most ingenious. "The Smoothie Song" and "Ode to a Butterfly" received low ratings, while "Scotch & Chocolate" garnered temperate reviews. "Elephant In The Corn," off of their newest record, came next, with Thile absolutely elated by the crafty name.

"21st of May" included an anecdote by Sean Watkins, who claimed that he wanted to write one last song before the potential rapture was going to happen a few years back. The new material, though more unfamiliar to the audience, was still welcomed and revered throughout the set. Watkins delivered his reasons for writing "Someone More Like You," also, a song that he wrote for the bitter times to come, which sounded perfect within the concert hall.

A lone spotlight shone upon Sara Watkins for classic ballad "Sabra Girl," which allowed her voice to ring through crystal clear as a hush fell upon the audience. Here, in the concert hall, their past and present lives were weaving a web. As an audience, we have seen how far they've come, and they continue to grow with each record. Another special moment in the set occurred when Sara Watkins took the lead on "Anthony," as the group huddled around a microphone with Watkins rocking out on the ukelele. On "Doubting Thomas" their material truly was illuminated in its purest form. They are so in sync with one another that it's hard to take your eyes off them, and you just want to watch them play for as long as possible, to continue the magic that they create so effortlessly.

Much to the audience's delight, they played their amazing cover of "Hayloft" by indie group Mother Mother. Their rocking harmonies and quick-paced strumming turned it into a jamming ballad, so much so that I enjoy their version even more than the stellar original. The group ended with classic "The Fox," but returned for a beautiful four-song encore, including crowd favorite "Helena," and a Sam Phillips cover, "Where Is Love Now." During their nearly two-hour-long set, the group showed that their sound is special, so much so that their fans will wait for their glorious return to the world of music. No matter how long that may be, I'd like to think that we all imagined our first listens to their debut album after the show ended, and how far we've come, too.

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Amos / May 20, 2014 10:10 AM

Excellent review... that was an amazing show! It was great to see Nickel Creek perform again, and it was fun to meet an actual music reviewer. :)

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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