Finger flicking good

I’m going on about four hours of sleep since last night, and it’s been a roller coaster of a day.

We kept Phoebe home from school today because she wasn’t feeling well and had a high fever. That meant we had a whirlwind start to the morning as Kates headed to her classroom to write lesson plans for her substitute teacher while I tried to get ready for my work day – today was the official start of the academic year at the university – and keep the girls occupied. By the time Kates returned home, it was too late for me to make my usual drive across town to take Faye to the daycare and still be on campus in time for our all-employee meeting. So Kates took Faye to the daycare – only to be called back a couple hours later because she wasn’t her usual self, convincing us she wasn’t feeling well either. My work day had its issues, too. …

But, hey, last night was a dream come true. So I have that.

Last night, saw Nickel Creek perform in Kansas City.

There are hardly enough words to describe the experience. I listen to the music of my favorite bands for so many years, study them, follow their blogs and social media, watch them on YouTube and establish a certain level of attachment to them.

But the feeling I have on those nights when these artists I admire so much are standing on a stage, live and performing, 10, 20 feet in front of me, is like no other.

I’ve been playing Nickel Creek’s music regularly for several years, loving their unique sound and signature harmonies. It was at a cousin’s wedding in 2005 that a pair of vocalists sang “Out of the Woods.” I was immediately taken by the song and looked up Nickel Creek as soon as I could afterward. Before long, their entire studio catalog was part of music library.

Then, they broke up.

For years, I wished hard that they might reunite. … And last spring, seemingly out of nowhere and impossibly, they did.

Still, I didn’t know what to expect last night. I don’t consider myself a bluegrass fan. I didn’t “grow up listening” to Nickel Creek as I overheard a few of last night’s concertgoers discussing – even the night's opening act, Sarah Jarosz, shared the sentiment – and I can’t say I know even most of the words to a majority of their songs.

I purposely tried to lower my expectations as I headed for the show. In fact, I tried to go in with no expectations.

And then everything I heard and saw blew that away. and the show surpassed my wildest expectations. I’m thinking it ranks – among Train in 2006, last summer’s Fun and some of the Ben Folds shows I’ve attended – as one of the best I’ve been lucky to be an audience member.

I got to the venue around 7 p.m. – the show was slated to begin at 8 – and already the crowd was lined up two blocks down the road and around a corner. Fortunately it didn’t matter as the openness of the venue allowed me to get about 10 feet from the stage.

Worth noting, the crowd, based on my observations and conversations I overheard, was clearly musically educated, god-loving and eclectic. Men and women, young and old, it was maybe the most diverse and balanced concert crowd of which I’ve ever been a part. I overheard a fair number of people throughout the night identifying themselves as music educators.

Sarah Jarosz was the night’s opener. She and her two bandmates – a violinist and cellist – kicked off their set with a twangy number that had me thinking my lowered expectations were going to be on par and I might be in for a long night of hoedown music.

But she had me at her second song, “Come Around,” and the trio proved to be a welcome warmup to Nickel Creek. When she wasn’t laying the twang on thick, Jarosz showed off a wonderful and often soothing alto voice.

She followed with equally enjoyable takes of “Build Me Up From Bones,” “Ring Them Bells” and “Over the Edge.” She also tossed in nice covers of Béla Fleck’s “Puddle Jumper” and Cat Stevens’ “The Wind.”

It was a joy to watch her perform – free and in her element. So at ease. At times, the trio’s sound even reminded me a bit of early Jars of Clay, the kind of guitar strumming and violin stuff that made the Jars’ self-titled debut so enjoyable.

Nickel Creek appeared on the stage around 9, and started in with “Rest of My Life,” the lead track on their new album. The crowd erupted the first time their voices connected for a harmony, and the show was officially on.

There wasn't a song throughout the set I didn't know on some level. Their harmonies soared throughout, but their master musicianship was what really pumped the show.

The lovely Sara Watkins repeatedly showed off her brilliant voice and immense talent on the violin. Chris Thile has a wonderful voice, too, but his work on the mandolin is out of this world.
Sean Watkins is a strong singer and talented guitar player in his own right, but really I just wanted to see him in a Phillies cap and compare how much he resembles one of my all-time favorite baseball personalities, John Kruk.

If I was to go on comparing Nickel Creek members to TV personalities, a biopic about Nickel Creek might as well star Bradley Whitford in the role of Chris Thile.

I digress …

Here's what The Kansas City Star had to say about the show. ... 
Tuesday’s magnificent concert indicated that the three musicians bring out the best in one another. Very few of the ensembles that have flourished during the recent resurgence in acoustic-oriented music possess even half of the talent or allure of the reformed Nickel Creek. The band seems impervious to trends and fully capable of building an even larger base of fans thirsty for its organic approach.

Joined by the distinguished bassist Mark Schatz, the revitalized trio repeatedly veered between hay bale hootenannies and elegant concert hall serenades during a performance that was ten minutes shy of two hours.
Arguably, the highlight for me – though there were many – was their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Ledge.” ... Nickel Creek's version is way better to my ears. Here they are performing it a few weeks ago in Brooklyn. I love how animated Sara gets, and the performance also shows off the fantastic bass playing of Schatz.

They were playful and witty with the crowd, too, and the between-song banter grew more entertaining as show went on, particularly after “The Ledge.” Chris began riffing about how a ledge is never mentioned in the song, nor does it seem to be about a ledge. On the other hand, Nickel Creek’s song “Anthony,” is clearly about a boy named Anthony, and Chris teased Sara that he counts the number of times Sara sings Anthony every night to make sure she sings the song correctly. Instrumentals, Chris explained, are a different animal and claimed part of the reason for the band’s hiatus was that they ran out of titles for their instrumental songs. He went on to claim that “Smoothie Song” may be the worst title for an instrumental song, ever, and accepted the blame for that. He also admitted that “Ode to a Butterfly” would be more accurate if it were called “God Damn Butterfly.”

For their final song, the band noted how impressed they were by the acoustics of the hall during their afternoon soundcheck and they wanted to take advantage by performing their final song acoustically. So they unplugged completely and stepped away from their microphones. They requested that everyone put down their recording devices and be in the moment, even shooting dirty looks at those didn’t quite take their request to heart initially.

And the crowd was rewarded because what a magical moment it was. The group huddled at the front of the stage and performed a heart-achingly beautiful “Where is Love Now,” their raw sound filling the hall. The dead silence between notes was breathtaking.

Afterward, betting on a meeting with the band members outside the theater, I bought a copy of “A Dotted Line” – even though I already own a digital version – for autographs. Sure enough – in what seemed to be a record time in comparison to other artists for whom I’ve waited after shows – Sara, Chris and Sean came out from behind the theater, one by one until all three were standing among us. So gracious, they accommodated every request for an autograph or photo and lingered for several minutes afterward to chat with us.

To say I was thrilled would be an understatement.

Here is Nickel Creek’s set list … to the best of my recollection because my phone died after “Somebody More Like You,” thus preventing me from taking additional notes. I'm also including links to some similar live performances from the tour -- that were favorites of mine last night. 
  1. Rest of My Life
  2. Scotch & Chocolate (instrumental)
  3. This Side ... one of my very favorite Nickel Creek songs.
  4. Destination ... A great song featuring Sara on lead vocals.
  5. The Lighthouse’s Tale
  6. Smoothie Song (instrumental) ... The only video I shot of the night.
  7. Reasons Why
  8. 21st of May
  9. When In Rome
  10. Anthony ... I have a whole new appreciation for this song after watching them perform it this way.
  11. Ode to a Butterfly (instrumental)
  12. You Don’t Know What's Going On
  13. Somebody More Like You
  14. When You Come Back Down ... Introductory banter included.
  15. The Ledge (Fleetwood Mac cover)
  16. Elephant in the Corn (instrumental)
  17. Jealous of the Moon
  18. Hayloft ... It was fun to hear the crowd get into this one, and it's easily one of my favorites on the new album.
  19. The Fox
  20. Helena
  21. Cuckoo’s Nest (instrumental)
  22. Where is Love Now ... Doesn't hold a candle to the unplugged version they performed last night. But it's still beautiful.
Bonus coverage. Here’s a great interview with the band

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