Nickel Creek Runs through Ohio

Kristopher Weiss on February 29, 2024
Nickel Creek Runs through Ohio

After playing together since they were children, the now-middle-aged members of Nickel Creek often sound like one musician rather than the three who make up the band – they are that tight.

That’s not to say the personalities of mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, are submerged in the ephemeral Creek. Rather, the threesome – accompanied by bassist Jeff Picker for the tour that stopped Feb. 15 to play Columbus, Ohio’s, Mershon Auditorium – continue their 35-year-long musical conversation with a seamless flow between the effervescent Sara Watkins and the reserved Sean Watkins flanking the good-natured and loose-limbed Thile, who resembles one of those inflatable tube men often used in advertising. 

This dynamic reached its apex at the first encore, “Hayloft.” As Sara Watkins sung and sawed and Sean Watkins picked, Thile traced the contours of the stage while doing a kind of front-facing moonwalk that made him look as if he was on a conveyor belt. 

Nickel Creek had taken the stage nearly two hours and 23 songs earlier and launched into the Sara Watkins-led stomper “Where the Long Line Leads,” a raucous celebration of being alive from 2023’s Celebrants. From there it was all the way back to “Ode to a Butterfly” and forward to the recent album’s title track as the career-spanning set found the band employing handclaps and mic’d floorboards for percussion and three lead singers and two- to four-part harmonies as Picker, who got a couple of solos, including on “The Fox,” was no mere backing musician despite being mostly unlit behind the principals. 

To make the point, the bassist and background vocalist was front and center when the band took its bows to a vigorous standing ovation.

Playing before a backdrop depicting an empty barn, and with the house going dark after nearly every song as the crowd hooted and hollered its appreciation, Nickel Creek presented instrumentals like “Going Out” and “Elephant in the Corn” alongside such vocal pieces as Sean Watkins’ doomsday-preacher-ribbing “21st of May,” Sara Watkins’ hilarious ode to relationships, “Thinnest Walls” and Thile’s observational “To the Airport,” a place where humans are not on their best behavior.

Though they’ve taken hiatuses during which Thile co-founded Punch Brothers, Sara Watkins did the same with I’m With Her and joined brother Sean to create Watkins Family Hour – not to mention their solo efforts – the members of Nickel Creek are a band of their own when they come together. It’s evident not only in the musical dialogue between them but in the conscious decision to perform only Nickel Creek tunes at Nickel Creek gigs, thus preserving its pristine nature.