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Martin Benjamin

Splendor in the Bluegrass
By Peter Hanson

Nickel Creek
The Egg, April 6

It should have come as no surprise that the folks who filled the Egg’s Hart Theatre on Saturday were ravenous to hear Nickel Creek’s ethereal take on pop-tinged bluegrass, but the explosions of applause that greeted the first notes of many numbers were still impressive. The band’s self-titled breakthrough disc has sold just half a million copies, after all, but the trio were greeted like rock stars touring behind a blockbuster album. The players took the adoration in stride, delivering a smooth, energetic show that didn’t even hint at complacency—which was admirable, given that they spent years playing in the relative obscurity of bluegrass festivals before Nickel Creek made them famous. These three young musicians have every reason to rest on their laurels now that they’ve won a small berth in the pop firmament, but they seem determined to build on their success.

The question before them, however, is what sort of a band they will be in the future. The band’s 1998 album Little Cowpoke had vestiges of their past as a novelty act, fresh-faced teenagers pickin’ and grinnin’ their way through cowboy tunes and bluegrass romps. Produced by crossover star Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek has as much accessible balladry as instrumental wizardry, and the band’s videos and promotional materials play up the heartthrob looks and voice of mandolinist Chris Thile. Given that he and violinist Sara Watkins have scored with wispy love songs, it would be easy for Nickel Creek to raise their stock by ditching their rustic roots.

At the Egg, the band had it both ways, emulating Krauss’ style of complementing bluegrass with pop. The first number was an untitled instrumental workout that showed off Thile’s nimble fretwork, Sara’s elegant fiddling and the quicksilver guitar playing of Sara’s brother, Sean Watkins. Then the band segued to “Reasons Why,” a haunting ballad sung breathily by Sara. This transition set the eclectic mood for the evening.

Accompanied by bassist Derek Jones, sufficiently older than the other musicians that he seemed like he was onstage to chaperone, Nickel Creek occupied the limelight with casual cool. With a guitar that was nearly as big as his body, 25-year-old Sean looked like a child at a recital, mostly standing still on one spot. Sara, 20, was a bit more active, stomping her feet at the outset of each aggressive musical charge. Yet 21-year-old Thile was the focus, his tall, thin frame topped by a rooster-like thicket of hair as he strutted around the stage, rock-star-style, in tandem with his many solos.

While notable for their complexity and expressiveness, the solos were the least interesting moments, because Nickel Creek’s music takes off when the members combine their powers. Their chosen instruments mesh so organically that they can forge a unified sound, then ride it through everything from delicate breezes to frenetic windstorms. The effect can be so absorbing that after several tunes, listeners let silence fill the room a moment before clapping, allowing them to soak in every last note and even its echo.

Some of the evening’s biggest crowd-pleasers included “The Lighthouse’s Tale,” a Thile-sung mood piece with a Celtic-style blend of melancholy and majesty, “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain,” a gospel number that Sara sang with reverent restraint, and “Big Sam Thompson,” a Thile-penned instrumental that featured two distinct halves joined in an ambitious suite. Just as the audience embraced these lovely numbers, they roared their approval for such slight efforts as “Locking Doors,” a tune inspired by Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets, and a Sara-sung ditty about . . . well, here’s how she introduced it: “There are so many songs about love and death. There are some subjects that have been neglected because of the love-and-death surplus. Where are the songs about decomposing whales, for instance?”

The goofiness of that moment was endearing, but indicative of the identity crisis Nickel Creek are going through. Are they still a novelty band? Are they pop stars? Or are they a bluegrass group who happen to dabble in other genres? By the end of the show, when the musicians stepped to the lip of the stage to sing a gentle gospel tune without microphones, it was clear that this audience liked Nickel Creek just as they are, seeming contradictions and all. It remains to be seen, however, whether the listening public as a whole will embrace the band’s entire identity, or just parts of it.

North by Northweird

Hawksley Workman
The Larkin Lounge, April 14

I am sick and tired of Canada—but not for the reasons you think.

I do not care that in Montreal they pretend to be baffled when you order a Molson with an American accent (le goddamn beer, then!); I do not care to speculate on the Freudian significance of Toronto’s maniacal cleanliness; I do not need to insist that Canadian comedians are not nearly as funny as we have been brainwashed into thinking (the accents are working my last nerve, Myers). What I’m really freaked oot aboot is that the Canadians seem truly not to give a fuck—and I’m absolutely sick with envy.

On Sunday night, Canadian Hawksley Workman shamed a whole batch of aspiring American pop stars, whether they’ll ever know it or not. Though Workman is frequently compared to the late Jeff Buckley, the fact is he’s better—better because he seems not to give a fuck. He’s got none of the studied fragility of Buckley, none of the showy introversion that Buckley’s cult interpreted posthumously as poetic destiny. Which is not to say the guy is unaffected: His purposefully obscure, quasi-poetic—at times gibbering—banter was hardly spontaneous. (One of Workman’s soliloquies inspired a friend to say to me, “I can translate Morrison to English, if you need.”) But, really, who gives a damn about spontaneity when you’ve got skills, when you’ve got craft? Like Olivier said to Hoffman, “Why don’t you try acting?”

Workman’s approach to pop music is unapologetically theatrical. By acknowledging the inherent artificiality of performance, Workman frees himself to swing for the fences. When you have no prohibitions—such as notions of authenticity or sincerity—you can use anything you think might be effective in moving an audience. It’s a magpie approach of the sort best illustrated by David Bowie. High-culture to low, aria to arena rock—anything and everything that works. Workman’s songs ranged from numbers like “Paper Shoes,” which sounds like it could have been lifted from Rent, to the radio-ready novelty pop of “No Sissies,” which sounds like They Might Be Giants meets Barenaked Ladies. In between, there’s cabaret-style torchiness, Radiohead-esque keening, and U.K.-singer-songwriter emotionality à la Van Morrison or the Waterboys. And if you think that’s too disparate a range to be believed, you haven’t heard the guy’s voice.

Workman’s got a simply incredible voice, and the good sense to use it appropriately. He can falsetto like a mofo and still avoid sounding overly delicate, which is a trick; he can growl and spit lyrics that need spitting; and he’s got a born showman’s sense of dynamics. Workman whispered as much as he yelped, he sang off-mike and played percussion on his pint glass with a straw—and no one in the audience missed a note or a beat. And that audience, it must be said, was a sight unto itself. As eclectic in their dress as Workman was inclusive in his idiom—there were both cowboy hats and paisley capes—they were politely fanatic in their obvious devotion. Let’s hope that Canada never develops radio-broadcast technology, the narrow formatting of which would just ruin the good thing they’ve got. The bastards.

—John Rodat


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