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May 15, 2014 at 2:48 PM

Nickel Creek keeps the fire alive | Concert preview

Nickel Creek plays the Moore Theater Saturday night.

Nickel Creek plays the Moore Theater Saturday night.

The thing about family is that there’s always unfinished business — even when it doesn’t seem like there should be.

That feels like the case with Nickel Creek, the seminal newgrass trio that hits the Moore Theater Saturday in support of “A Dotted Line,” its first album in nine years and first tour since 2007.

When Nickel Creek went on an indefinite hiatus, no one could blame Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. After all, the band had been playing together since 1989, when Sara was just 8 years old and the trio was mere children growing up in sunny San Diego County.

It makes sense that after putting out five studio albums and touring relentlessly, band members would want to branch out on their own. Thile recorded four albums with his band the Punch Brothers (and two solo albums), Sara released two solo albums and Sean put out a pair of albums with his band Family Fiction.

Bizarre as it is given the youth of the band (Sean is the oldest at just 37), 2014 marks Nickel Creek’s silver anniversary, and “A Dotted Line” is alive with hard-won maturity that takes the band’s music in innovative directions seemingly far from their roots in the sounds of Appalachia.

Of course, it’s hard for Nickel Creek to not sound tremendously different than on its debut album, 1993’s “Little Cowpoke.” Striking in both the technical skill and the age of its young performers, it’s hard not to marvel at the fact that these are kids working over complex, satisfying versions of “Ride Cowboy Ride” and “Home on the Range.”

By the time Nickel Creek broke through to mainstream (platinum-selling) success with its 2000 self-titled album, each member had made a quantum leap forward as a player. The first track, “Ode to a Butterfly,” seems designed to showcase this metamorphosis, while “The Lighthouse’s Tale” revealed the band’s interest in songwriting and storytelling.

They refined that storytelling ability by 2005’s “Why Should the Fire Die?,” at which point it was also clear that the ceiling for the group’s musicianship was scarily high. The album, lean, muscular, and infused with a healthy dose of rock attitude on songs like its sole single “When in Rome,” shot to the top of the U.S. Billboard Bluegrass and Independent albums charts.

If that was the band’s last chapter, it would have been a fine way to go out. But that’s the thing about families. There’s always unfinished business and there are always more stories to tell. “A Dotted Line” expands the band’s sound even further, to soulful country on the opening track “Rest of My Life” and to the funky, hip-hop flavor of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft.”

Once you wrap your brain around the fact that it’s actually Nickel Creek playing the song, it’s hard to not be blown away by the band’s verve and humor, on display even on instrumentals like the playful “Elephant in the Corn.”

Nickel Creek’s members asked themselves why they should let the fire die and couldn’t find a good reason, even after 25 years. Neither can we.

Nickel Creek
8 p.m. Saturday, May 17 at the Moore Theatre, 1932 2nd Ave., Seattle; $32.50 to $42.50 (1-877-784-4849 or STGpresents.org)

-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails

Comments | More in Americana, Country, Folk | Topics: moore theater, Nickel Creek

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