After getting shut out of Friday night tickets at the Ryman, I settled for Saturday. Nickel Creek was going on a reunion tour, their first in seven years, and Nashville was where it would kick off.
Until they decided to add two warmup dates. Asheville, North Carolina picked one up, and Birmingham, Alabama managed to become the tour opener on April 16. For the first time since November of 2007, Chris Thile and the Watkins siblings would perform in front of an audience, and it would be at the Alabama Theatre, the Showplace of the South, right here in the Magic City.
While the Ryman shows sold out quickly, there were tickets available on the day of the Birmingham show, but fans quickly rectified it as a line had formed outside nearly two hours before the set began. At 8:36 p.m., the trio took the stage with the second track from this month’s A Dotted Line, “Destination.”
No elaborate stage set, no spectacular lights — musicianship is what defined Nickel Creek, and it was the centerpiece of the band’s return. The crowd immediately recognized the more familiar “The Lighthouse’s Tale” as the second choice in the evening’s setlist.
Following the instrumental “Scotch and Chocolate,” Thile opined, “This is our first show in seven years. Is it seven-and-a-half?”
“It was November of 2007, so I think it’s six-and-a-half,” Sara Watkins chimed in.
“It’s always great to get to the math right off the bat,” quipped Sean Watkins.
The band’s sense of humor remained, and while they took shots at their ability to banter, it’s something they’ve mastered nearly as well as Thile has mastered the mandolin or Sara the violin.
“Birmingham has always been a special place for us,” said Sara. “Is this the first time we’ve sold out the Alabama Theatre? It is? We did it, guys!”
The sold-out room was motionless and awestruck for the duration of the nearly two-hour set. Sean added his own gems “This Side” and “21st of May,” a new track he said was written about “one of the raptures,” an apocalyptic scare in May of 2011.
During one slightly awkward transition, as the band eased toward “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” Thile stopped. “Okay. Let’s marinate. Good word, ‘marinate.’ Reminds me of Dreamland [the popular Birmingham BBQ staple].”
“Hayloft,” a cover of the 2008 Mother Mother track, is on an island. It is a standout track on A Dotted Line, a unique bluegrass take on a song about a homicidal farmer that catches his daughter gallivanting with a gentleman suitor in a barn. And while it was apparent that most of the crowd was unfamiliar with new material, this track brought many to their feet for the evening’s first standing ovation. Its studio manufacturing left questions for its live translation, but the band nailed it.
The audience rose for a full standing ovation as Nickel Creek left after “Fox,” the end of its regular set. And despite taking a bow, the band returned for three more tunes: “Helena,” “Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Where is Love Now.”
“The evening just flew by,” Sara said before the band wrapped.
Despite a couple of small transitional hiccups, the evening was flawless, and the band used each of those as an opportunity to make the crowd laugh. The room held nearly 2,500, but somehow felt intimate; intimate enough for fans to shout requests at the stage during one pause — “Free Bird” among them.
“That’s really hard,” said Thile.
One of the most musically talented bands of the last 20 years, Nickel Creek’s first show in seven made it seem as if they never took a break.
Let’s do it again at the Ryman this weekend.
SETLIST: Destination – The Lighthouse’s Tale – Scotch and Chocolate – This Side – Rest of My Life – Out of the Woods – Ode to a Butterfly – When in Rome – 21st of May – Anthony – Smoothie Song – You Don’t Know What’s Going On – Reasons Why – Doubting Thomas – Elephant in the Corn – Somebody More Like You – When You Come Back Down – Hayloft – Fox – [ENCORE BREAK] – Helena – Cuckoo’s Nest – Where is Love Now