Nickel Creek, Josh Ritter
Koka Booth Amphitheatre
Thursday, Aug. 14 2014

In 2007, the not-quite-bluegrass trio of Nickel Creek wrapped up its “Farewell (For Now)” tour, going on one of those cursed indefinite hiatuses so its members could pursue other projects. In the years since, the trio of mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins have all been busy: the Watkins siblings have solo projects, while Thile’s had Punch Brothers, the Goat Rodeo, some Bach partitas and sonatas and a MacArthur “genius grant” to occupy his time.

But in April the band released a new album, A Dotted Line. The record felt like Nickel Creek was back in full force—this wasn’t a half-hearted cashing-in on nostalgia. Along with the album came tour dates, of course, with a stop in Cary at Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The venue, normally a too-quiet hassle for non-symphony bands, suited the evening perfectly, with a break in the week of rain a welcome bonus.

Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter opened the evening, an excellent mostly acoustic complement to Nickel Creek’s more fleshed-out sound. He’s a hell of a songwriter, and though his tunes have a literary bent, they’re more accessible and less pretentious than something like The Decemberists. He played a handful of new songs alongside some of his best such as “The Temptation of Adam,” and made it clear just how thrilled he was to be on tour with Nickel Creek. Fans of Thile’s other work might recognize it as a mutual admiration society—Punch Brothers covered Ritter’s “Another New World” for its Ahoy! EP.

Ritter played close to an hour before, at last, it was time for Nickel Creek, with major bluegrass player Mark Schatz joining the trio on bass. The band pulled heavily from its 2000 self-titled record and its 2005 LP Why Should The Fire Die? The only tracks that came from This Side, the Grammy-winning album which turned 12 years old this week, were “Smoothie Song” and “This Side.”

Highlights included “Destination,” “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and “21st of May,” which Sean Watkins wrote in response to the rapture that was supposed to happen in 2011. And in true Nickel Creek fashion, they pulled out an off-the-wall cover of “The Ledge” by Fleetwood Mac. It wasn’t “Toxic,” but hey, it was just fine.

A friend who had seen the band in Asheville in April had told me the band was still trying to settle into the groove of playing together again, but by Thursday night, Nickel Creek had apparently worked out all its kinks. Their onstage chemistry was bubbly and genuine, and every song was airtight in its execution.

Before launching into its finale of “The Fox,” Nickel Creek ripped through its cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft,” which Sara Watkins claimed had many elements of a bluegrass song—“daddy’s love, romantic love, firearms and hay.” In the same vein, the band returned to the stage for an encore of “Cuckoo’s Nest” with Thile saying that, being in North Carolina, it was about time for them to play a fiddle tune. Schatz clogged along, a delightful surprise, before returning to the bass for the band to close with “Where is Love Now.”

And just like that, it was over. Sweet because it happened, but bitter because it felt like it happened so fast. As they left the stage, the band said “see you next time,” but for Nickel Creek, next time’s probably a long time away.

Set list:
Rest of My Life
Scotch & Chocolate
This Side
The Lighthouse’s Tale
Smoothie Song
Reasons Why
21st of May
When in Rome
Ode to a Butterfly
The Ledge (Fleetwood Mac)
Somebody More Like You
The Elephant in the Corn
When You Come Back Down
Hayloft (Mother Mother)
The Fox
Cuckoo’s Nest
Where is Love Now