(Above [L-R]: Sara Watkins, Mark Schatz and Chris Thile. Photo by Katie Vesser)
Why Should the Fire Die?—it’s the title of the new Nickel Creek album, and the question that kept running through my mind after hearing it. I feared I’d still be asking myself after tonight’s performance. The acoustic trio has finally graduated from the smaller venues it’s played in the past, and is about to hit the stage at Atlanta’s legendary Fox Theatre. Will they still pull out lengthy, determined jams and classics from the previous two records, tracks like “The Fox” and “The Smoothie Song”? These songs helped Nickel Creek establish a unique niche in the Americana community, though I’m afraid they’ll be absent from tonight’s performance. But Nickel Creek hasn’t disappointed me yet, so I’m overwhelmingly curious as to how this show—their biggest headlining gig ever—will play out.
As the band—with touring bassist Mark Schatz in tow—strolls onstage and breaks into new single, “When in Rome,” the stadium-rock lights kick in. Four enormous structures stand behind the group, who are spread out across the enormous stage, immediately distracting from a major part of Nickel Creek’s appeal—being able to see the amazing musicians attack their instruments. But they soon settle into a groove, as does the audience, who slowly warms up to the set.
The new songs are much more powerful live, and fiddler Sara Watkins’ soft, smoky vocals are dead-on. After a slow start, the audience perks up for instrumental “The Smoothie Song.” The band members are noticeably more comfortable, moving their bodies in rhythm and commanding the stage. The music is so dynamic that words aren’t required; the audience is engaged, and you can almost forget the blinding blue lights striking fans dancing to the extended improv.
Nickel Creek has covered everyone from Beck to the Carter Family, and tonight the band pulls out Radiohead’s “Nice Dream” and The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” the latter of which they sing with five-piece stringband Old Crow Medicine Show backing them up. Everyone sings along, and the night finally feels less like an impersonal rock show and more like a late-night jam session.
After a few older selections, including “This Side,” written and belted by soft-spoken guitarist Sean Watkins, Thile stands center stage and announces in calculated monotone, “This next song is about… coffee.” The crowd laughs, but Thile explains that his doctor has recently banished caffeine from the singer’s diet. For anyone who has met Thile or seen him onstage, you assume this would seriously deplete his rabid energy level. However, he still bounces around stage all night, cracking jokes and getting ahead of the set list without what he calls his one “quenchable desire.”
The band returns for an encore of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” (a mournful ballad about a past New Orleans flood that’s very appropriate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina). Finally, they play the song the crowd has been waiting for all night—“The Fox.” As I walk out onto the streets of midtown Atlanta, I’m no longer asking “Why should the fire die?” but reassuring myself that , “even if the fire dies down, the slightest spark can still reignite the blaze.”