Nickel Creek: a musical Frankenstein

Don’t call Nickel Creek a bluegrass band. They say their music should not be locked into that genre. Don’t call them a pop group either because they’ll be quick to shed that title as well. But in their third album, Why Should We Let the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill), Nickel Creek combines classic bluegrass techniques, traditional Celtic melodies and angst-ridden emo-pop lyrics to create a musical Frankenstein that can only be described as delightfully unique.

The Southern Californian acoustic trio, whose self-titled debut album in 2000 catapulted them to the forefront of the independent music scene, said that their goal for their new album isn’t to progress in any one genre, but to record an album full of the energy and vigor of their live performances, marked by the band’s improvisational techniques and stage presence.

“We just want to make (the music) better,” said guitarist and singer Sean Watkins in an interview with The Hatchet. “I don’t really see us going in one namable direction . all we wanted to do is capture more how we sound on stage.”

Early in their career, Nickel Creek became famous for playing “youthgrass”- traditional bluegrass music that reached audiences both young and old. The combination of Sara Watkins on fiddle, Sean Watkins on guitar and Chris Thile on mandolin attracted a new generation to music inspired by their legendary bluegrass influences, including Edgar Meyer, Bill Monroe and Pat Metheny.

But the band is intent on growing beyond their roots. By parting ways with longtime producer Alison Krause and teaming with rock producers Eric Valentine and Tony Berg, the band looks to move away from their previously folksy sound and gain a more progressive-rock edginess to their music. When Watkins was asked what musician he would most like to share the stage with, Watkins was quick to say that he would love to jam with progressive electro-pop band Radiohead.

Some of the standout songs on the new album include “When in Rome,” which draws heavily from the band’s Celtic bluegrass base, but experiments with pop harmonies and emotionally complex lyrics. Their rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” takes full advantage of Watkins’s gracefully lulling voice and combines it with a rich acoustic melody that envelopes the listener.

Nickel Creek will combine the improvisational playing style that has made them a staple in the jam-band community and the genre-defying sound of their new album on their fall tour, which will be making a stop in D.C. at the 9:30 Club on Oct. 9.

The band Time Magazine named on their list of “Music Innovators for the New Millennium” may not be easily definable, but they are definitely delving into uncharted musical territory.

Sean Watkins said, “We just want to make good music, whatever it is.”

Nickel Creek will perform at the 9:30 Club on Oct. 9. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at or the 9:30 box office.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.