Chris Thile really, really loves Zingerman’s.
Sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the well-known food empire’s name under his blazer at Tuesday’s show at The Michigan Theater, the Nickel Creek mandolinist and his band mates, brother-sister duo Sean and Sara Watkins, declared their affinity for Zingerman’s Deli sandwiches. “Whenever you guys are feeling blue, like during the first half of your football season, just think: at least you have delicious Zingerman’s to eat,” Thile said during the show. “Or do we not talk about that?”
The band stopped in Ann Arbor on the last leg of their “Farewell (For Now) Tour,” which will be followed by what they have called an “indefinite hiatus.”
After almost two decades together, it may be high time for a rest. Though its success may seem recent, Nickel Creek formed in 1989, when all three members were preteens, and have performed together ever since. It wasn’t until 2000 when singer Alison Krauss approached the band and offered to produce its self-titled album that their real recognition began.
It’s difficult to characterize Nickel Creek’s music. They are often described as a progressive bluegrass band, but in 2002 they won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and have been nominated in other categories since then. The band members themselves have avoided the bluegrass classification in interviews in favor of other phrases like “progressive acoustic.”
In a time when the “country” genre has developed a number of connotations – a specific sound, predictable subject matter and an exclusive audience, in some cases – the decision to avoid being called a country band is a wise one for a few reasons. For one, some indie music lovers have latched onto the band’s unique sound in recent years, many who wouldn’t count “bluegrass” among their favorite styles otherwise. There were fans of all ages and backgrounds present at Tuesday’s show: men with grey hair and teenagers with pink tresses sat in the same row, clapping along to their instrumental tracks and singing along to songs like “Reasons Why,” on which Sara showcases her sultry, breathless voice.
But a desire to broaden its base isn’t the only ostensible reason the band has sought to defy classification. Nickel Creek’s music simply doesn’t have a single origin. Some songs have Celtic influences; others sound more like rock or folk. During Tuesday’s show, Sara fluctuated between countrified fiddling on songs like “Scotch and Chocolate” and clear, vibratoless tones for more middle-of-the-road tunes.
It seems like being in Nickel Creek would be a lot of fun. The onstage banter between Sara and Sean, ranging from good-natured bickering to outright sibling rivalry, kept the show lively. The band also played two covers: a positively raging version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and a spirited rendition of the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The band members danced, told jokes and praised the welcoming audience before it ended its regular set with “The Lighthouse’s Tale” to a standing ovation.
What is it that makes Nickel Creek so mesmerizing? Its perfect vocal harmonies? Its energetic style?
Perhaps the most effective aspect of the band is that its members appear as very real people who play real instruments – they eat sandwiches, their instruments go out of tune onstage and every crack and waver in their voices is noticeable. In a time when electronic accompaniments and digitally enhanced voices have become pervasive, listening to a live acoustic trio is a treat.
Nickel Creek manages to create something almost spiritual out of very secular, roots-oriented forms, and when the trio leaps from an intricately mapped accompaniment into an eight-minute improvisation, the effect is positively haunting. Though its members are still young, Nickel Creek has achieved much in its time. Maybe someday they’ll be back for more.