The first sign of the wild enthusiasm that greeted Nickel Creek’s first UK show in 20 years was the queue outside the Union Chapel as the temperature plunged towards 2 degrees Celsius on a dark January evening. At 6.30pm when the doors opened – a full hour before showtime – this line of ticket-holders stretched more than 150 metres along Compton Terrace and almost to the end of the road. One of the few drawbacks of this wonderful building as a music venue is the lack of numbered seating. If you want to be near the front at a popular show, you have to arrive madly early. The downstairs pews were almost full by the time we got inside, so we went upstairs and had a great view from the front row of the balcony.
The next sign of how much Nickel Creek have been missed was the wave of a-cheerin’ and a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ as they mounted the Union Chapel stage for the first time since October 16, 2002 (I was there then, too). Their grins of surprise and delight at such a rapturous welcome stayed in place for the whole night. As lead singer and mandolin player Chris Thile pointed out later, this was “our first proper show in four years” and they could not have wished for a better reception.
Nickel Creek, who first got together as child bluegrass prodigies in 1989, have taken several long breaks since their purple patch from 2000 to 2006. Chris Thile has run a parallel career with the Punch Brothers while playing and recording with everyone from Dolly Parton and Jack White to cellist Yo Yo Ma. Fiddle player Sara Watkins and her guitarist brother Sean also keep busy with side and solo projects, together and apart. These include a fabulous 2021 album by Sara called ‘Under The Pepper Tree’, which is aimed at families and children.
But now the old gang is back together and in March they release ‘The Celebrants’, the first Nickel Creek studio album since 2014. Friday’s audience heard the first live performance of the title track, along with current single ‘Strangers’.
I have only vague memories of their 2002 concert, but it was clear that the assured and confident forty-somethings who burst on to the stage had benefited from the two decades of experience in between. Chris and Sara put their whole bodies into performing – jumping and stamping and bouncing on the boards while playing intricate instrumental runs, then zooming back to their mics to sing pitch-perfect harmonies. Alongside touring bass player Jeff Picker, Sean Watkins is the calm centre of this musical storm, anchoring the sound with his 1940s Gibson LG (a gift from Jackson Browne).
They kicked off with ‘’When In Rome’’, the opener from their 2005 album ‘Why Should The Fire Die’, and in a set that lasted just short of two hours they played 24 numbers, mostly sticking to the three-album series that began in 2000 with their Alison Krauss produced breakthrough. Another two new songs also featured, and it sounds like the forthcoming album will favour more complex vocal harmonies along with an almost classical feel in places. The moments when Jeff played bowed bass under Sara’s expressive fiddle lines were the most musically delicious of the evening.
The main set finished with long-time audience favourite ‘The Fox’, then after a short but deafening bout of clapping, cheering and stamping they came back for two more numbers, finishing the show unamplified at the front of the stage with the beautiful ballad ‘When You Come Back Down’.
If there’s any doubt as to how much we loved this show at the Union Chapel, the first thing I did the next morning was to book tickets for their next UK concert, which had just been announced. This will be at the much larger Barbican Hall on September 1st.
The support artist was singer-songwriter Lau Noah. I hadn’t checked her out in advance and was pleasantly surprised by the originality of her songs, underpinned by beautifully played guitar in a traditional Spanish style. I’m tempted to reach for the word flamenco here, but purists might dispute that. Born in Catalan Spain and based in New York, she sings in both Spanish and English and I really liked her voice. She has her own London show at Kings Place (Hall Two) on Friday, 10th February.
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