Nickel Creek live at the Wiltern Theater: Hallelujah, the 21st of May!

The last two times I saw Nickel Creek were at the exact same venue where I was fortunate enough to see them perform earlier this week, on the final evening of their reunion tour. I realized just as I was typing that sentence that I’m incredibly spoiled.

Those last two concerts, in 2003 and 2005 respectively, rank among the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and even if they were merely good, having seen them at all before seems like a privilege considering that some of the folks who were there had only gotten into the band after their hiatus began in 2007, having discovered them through their solo and side projects, or other ventures like Sara Watkins’ frequent participation in A Prairie Home Companion. Imaging getting into one of your favorite bands right after they had broken up. It would be devastating. Even to someone who had been to a concert of theirs that was just so-so, you would probably remark incredulously, “At least you got to see them at all!” Having this in mind, I couldn’t really complain about our nosebleed seats, or the inconvenience of driving into the heart of Los Angeles on a weeknight (something which I will now only do for top-tier favorite bands). I’d seen them up close and personal enough before to have memorized the chords they were playing, if only my mind could have slowed everything down to still frames. The chance to see them as teeny-tiny munchkins way down there on a far-away stage was still way better than the nothing I would have expected to get from them any time soon.

The funny thing about the chemistry between Sean, Chris and Sara is that while they hadn’t played together in nearly seven years before reforming earlier this year, they sound like they never even missed a beat. Since most of the night was dedicated the long string of “oldies” (meaning songs from their three best-known albums released between 2000 and 2005) that they really couldn’t not play, there were times when it felt like being in a timewarp, going back and revisiting those favorite concert moments from 2003 and 2005. Yet while those earlier shows were marked by a fair amount of offbeat cover choices and odd, experimental fare, this one was 100% album material, and so for me the best part of it was hearing the highlights from their newest album, A Dotted Line. Seven out of ten songs from that album worked their way into an already jam-pakced setlist, and they kept the flow of things unpredictable enough that I couldn’t tell whether something old or new could be expected next. A lot of the fast-paced instrumentals that helped the group to make a name for themselves among bluegrass fanatics back in the day seem to have morphed and changed over the years as their solo parts have been broken down and recreated several times, so even among the familiar, there was plenty of unpredictable and thoroughly entertaining improvisation. And the vocal songs, which gained them some crossover country radio success at first before slowly delving further and further into the rabbit hole on subsequent releases, are still as lovable as ever thanks to the group’s killer vocal harmonies bringing the playful side out of even some of their most somber material. For all of the divergent musical talents that led these three musicians along disparate paths during their time off from the group, they couldn’t have picked a better time to come back together as a unit, really emphasizing the strengths of all three members and somewhat downplaying Chris Thile’s former de facto status as frontman. He’s probably still the most outgoing of the three and the most likely to banter with the audience during the breaks between songs, but the song selection felt very democratic as they took their little walk down memory lane.

And as much as I love to watch these folks play their instrument, those bits of banter often count as concert highlights as well. Most bands couldn’t get away with yammering on for five or six minutes while setting up a song, but the one time they actually stopped to expound on the reasons for their hiatus at length, it led to a cavalcade of humorous observations, blaming their time off on having run out of good names for instrumental songs (and realizing that some of their past material was misnamed: “Ode to a Butterfly” may have been written about a month, and “Smoothie Song” just had one of those line-of-sight names that Chris now strongly disapproves of). Perfect setup for the long-winded, wobbly instrumental “Elephant in the Corn” from their new album, which I didn’t fully appreciate until seeing bassist and honorary fourth member Mark Schatz play out the sad, clumsy role of said elephant by way of the lowest possible notes on his instrument. Mark also did an energetic percussive intro to the aforementioned “Ode to a Butterfly”, consisting of a lot of hand clapping and knee slapping, and as is now tradition for the band, did a bit of clogging during the instrumental encore “Cuckoo’s Nest”. It’s still hard to believe that a band this ridiculously talented on record could have even more hidden talents to display in concert. They’re pretty much a walking variety show at this point.

Of course, a show taking place on the 21st of May couldn’t possibly exclude the group’s new song “21st of May”, which apparently began life as a Sean Watkins solo song, written on the eve of the rapture that never actually happened back in 2011. Sean explained to us that if the world was gonna end, he figured he’d better get one more song written before that happened. He ended up with a song that deftly toes the line between poking fun at religious fanaticism and portraying misguided but good intentions in a somewhat sympathetic light. It’s one of my favorites on the new record, and I’m glad the band talked him into not keeping it all to himself.

The opening act was a country duo from Alabama called Secret Sisters, fronted by two women who are, in fact, real-life sisters. (Not so sure what’s secret about it, but that’s beside the point). With relatively minimal instrumental support (usually just drums and guitar or lap steel), they won the crowd over quite easily, due in large part to their killer harmonies. Genre-wise, some of this might blend old-school and new-school in ways I’m not quite sure would fit into my collection, but I’m definitely going to give their newest album a try. Their self-deprecating sense of humor had us all charmed in no time, and they have a keen sense of self-awareness about their own songwriting process (which generally amounts to “Take a super-depressing subject and set it to a deceptively happy tune” – possibly the oldest trick in the country music book, but it still works). I was quite surprised to discover that a few folks up there in the nosebleed seats with us had come only to see Secret Sisters – one couple didn’t even stick around for Nickel Creek! That’s too bad, because I think NC makes a stellar first impression, even on people who have never heard any of their music before. But I’ve been in that situation of caring more for an opening band than for the main act before. I just figure if I’d paid main act prices, I wouldn’t want to go through all of the hassle of parking and liming up outside and planning the whole excursion to a crowded place on a weeknight, just for a show that ran 45 minutes or less. I’d at least stick around to see what that main act had to offer. At least one of the Sisters fans I had talked to did just that – and I think NC had won her over by merely a few songs into the show.


  • Rest of My Life
  • Scotch & Chocolate
  • This Side
  • Destination
  • Jealous of the Moon
  • Smoothie Song
  • Reasons Why
  • 21st of May
  • When in Rome
  • The Lighthouse’s Tale
  • Tomorrow Is a Long Time
  • Ode to a Butterfly
  • You Don’t Know What’s Going On
  • Somebody More Like You
  • Anthony
  • Elephant in the Corn
  • When You Come Back Down
  • Hayloft
  • The Fox


  • First and Last Waltz/Helena
  • Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Where Is Love Now



3 thoughts on “Nickel Creek live at the Wiltern Theater: Hallelujah, the 21st of May!

  1. Pingback: The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down: To Quit You or Not to Quit You? That Is the Question. | murlough23

  2. Pingback: Chatham County Line live at The Mint | murlough23

  3. Pingback: The Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Any More: Love is not possession. | murlough23

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