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Nickel Creek keeps flame burning

Orpheum Theatre, Boston, October 6, 2005

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Nickel Creek hasn't required much time to take off musically. Starting off in the bluegrass world under the watchful eye of Alison Krauss as producer of their first two releases, the early-twentysomething trio went beyond their bluegrass roots on their latest, "Why Should the Fire Die?"

The trio - Chris Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle and brother Sean Watkins on guitar - now utilize bluegrass as somewhat of a base, but also delve into jam band territory (perhaps the reason for their increasing popularity in short order) though with a light touch.

In concert, the music, especially from the latest disc, comes alive with a lot of spirit. Thile is far and away the focal point of the group. Tall and rangy, Thile sings well and plays a mean mandolin. He also handles most of the vocal chores with "Doubting Thomas" a particular standout. Probably a good thing since Sean is adequate, but not much more and far too low key in his approach to really front the band. That is not, however, to take away from his musical abilities.

Sara Watkins is a strong fiddler player, often spicing the songs, cutting a good image on stage as well and adding to the sound. And her vocal turns as lead singer offered a good change of pace.

Instrumentals proved very lively affairs with the give-and-take between the musicians, especially on "Stumptown," "a song about our favorite coffee shop in Portland," according to Thile, from the new disc where Watkins revved up her fiddle. He told the crowd that his doctor said he should lay off alcohol and coffee. Thile, who said, "This is why you don't go to doctors," gave dour, wan looks into the crowd drawing laughter on the supposedly sorrowful song.

Nickel Creek stood out big time on a medley including The Band's chestnut "Up on Cripple Creek," showing the link between the two groups.

The group encored their 90-minute show with "Scotch & Chocolate" where Thile thanked an unknown person for giving 25-year-old Scotch and chocolate to the group. Thile started the song off on mandolin with Watkins helping on fiddle in the fast and forceful song.

An appreciative Nickel Creek played its biggest show ever in Boston, and it's easy to see why. They got chops, good songs and an easy going style. Krauss may have helped lead them to where they are, but Nickel Creek certainly can keep the flame burning.

Leona Naess opened with a satisfactory 30-minute set, though she didn't alter her formula very much. An accompanying drummer helped flesh out the sound beyond the singer/songwriter bent as Ness played acoustic.

And while not to pick on her, enough of these visiting musicians who say "Go Sox" when they're not even baseball fans and merely trying to get in the good graces of Red Sox Nation.