Review: Nickel Creek

Kevin Wilson reviews their show at the Louisville Palace on Feb. 17

Feb 21, 2024 at 1:28 am
Nickel Creek played the Louisville Palace on Saturday, Feb. 17.
Nickel Creek played the Louisville Palace on Saturday, Feb. 17. Kevin Wilson

Sara Watkins (fiddle), her brother Sean Watkins (guitar), and childhood friend Chris Thile (mandolin) had already been collaborating under the moniker Nickel Creek for a handful of years when Thile’s family abruptly relocated to Murray, Kentucky. According to Thile, it was quite possibly this move, while Thile was 14, that helped to expand the band’s aspirations beyond simply being a kick-ass contemporary bluegrass outfit.

“I think it was moving to Kentucky that compelled me to press on myself more and to look further and further outside the bluegrass world for inspiration,” Thile told us during a recent phone conversation. “It’s like if you’re a little kid in Southern California, being involved in bluegrass is very countercultural. But being a little kid interested in bluegrass in Kentucky is far less radical. And I needed to be noticed.”

There’s likely more to the story, but it was super cool to see just how much this on-again, off-again acoustic act, now known for bending and blending genres, has evolved over the ensuing decades when it held court at Louisville’s majestic Palace Theatre on Feb. 17.

Following a superb, albeit brief, opening sequence from English songbirds The Staves, the Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek (which was augmented this time by bassist Jeff Picker) treated the damn-near-capacity crowd to little bits of comedy and a fairly extensive career-spanning set full of fans’ favorite tunes, old and new.

Throughout the Saturday evening jam, which featured well over 20 songs, instrumental workouts such as “Elephant in the Corn,” and “Scotch & Chocolate,” intermingled with lyrical legends like “Lighthouse’s Tale,” “Sabra Girl,” and "Somebody More Like You.”

The onstage banter between these longtime performance partners was endearing, as ever. And at one point, Sean Watkins even provided an enlightening account of how his quirky cut, “21st of May” came to be. It turns out, he wrote it from the standpoint of Harold Camping, a California preacher who had forecast May 21, 2011 as the end of the world, and whose ominous billboards Watkins had encountered on May 20 of that same year.

All things considered, by the time the metaphorical curtain came down after the final encore, it was clear that this was going to be remembered as one of the best shows of the 2024 concert season.