Nickel Creek – Koka Booth Amphitheater (Cary, NC – Aug. 14, 2014)
Live music happens in the world. It can provide a transcendant, life-affirming experience, but it is still of the world. Any time you leave the house — put the phone in your pocket, shut off the computer and/or the television, get in your car and go — you’re not leaving the world. You’re venturing out into it, into a space where everyone, for a change, agrees on at least one thing: the people on the stage are doing something important enough for everyone else to shut up for a minute and listen.
So, I can’t not mention Ferguson. It’s what is weighing on me as I drive the four and a half hours from my home in the hills of Asheville, NC, to the piedmont region in the center of our state, five days after an unarmed teenager was shot by a cop in Missouri and left in the street. Those five days have been full of news about the “situation.”
As I take a seat to watch one of my favorite bands play through a dozen or so of their best songs, pulling from their entire career, the image of another young man in a turquoise shirt — braids down his back, arms raised in surrender as a platoon of camouflaged white men march through the streets of Fallujah, I mean Ferguson, with their guns pointed at everyone in their way — is lodged in my head. “Post-racial America,” whatever that is. (That photographer was arrested a couple days later, for being a photographer.) What are we to do with this? How can we sit still and listen to music, knowing this is happening?
“The battle is over,” Chris Thile sings, pulling me back to where I am, after Sean Watkins’s guitar punches through the first couple chords of “Rest of My Life,” kicking off an hour of music far, far away from the madness in Missouri.
Here we all lie
in a dry sea of solo cups,
sun in our eyes.
It’s one of those endings:
No one claps ’cause they’re sure that there’s more…
And with that, the three-part harmony swells. These three voices know each other so well it’s easy to imagine this note, which hits like a dark door flung open to bright daylight, happened the first time with no discussion about what notes everyone should sing. It hits and holds for a beat before Sara Watkins takes her note over the threshold, into the day. Then the song falls off the stoop into a complicated, layered statement: “What a great way to start the first day of the rest of my life.” The line is duplicitous, and Thile delivers it perfectly. You don’t know if he’s being honest or sarcastic, complaining, or trying to convince himeself of something, or celebrating. It feels timely, somehow, or maybe I just need the music in this moment, to remind me we people are still capable of doing great things to and for one another, things that capture what’s difficult and turn it into beauty and possibility instead of destruction.
So, for an hour or longer — I lose track of time, honestly — I’m fixed in my chair. I’m in the music.
The trio and their bassist Mark Schatz move beautifully through everything from “Scotch & Soda” to “The Smoothie Song” (“It’s still a terrible name for a song,” admits Thile. “I was much, much younger”). They deliver an emotional and languid “Lighthouse’s Tale” and nail “Hayloft” hard (though it’s difficult to appreciate the devious humor in the line “My daddy’s got a gun / you better run”). “Anthony” provides a deep breath of fresh air and “Reasons Why” is perfect in its instrumentation and harmonies.
It occurs to me that there is no reckoning this moment with the same moment in Ferguson, MO, just as there is no reckoning it with the same moment anywhere else, as people wage war or riot or make love or die alone or are born. The world that produces a Ferugson-sized challenge is the same world that produces these three voices singing in harmony. Where Ferguson sheds light on the things we still don’t understand, can never understand, may never be able to undo (though we must never stop trying), the music rising over that lake at the Booth Amphitheater — a gorgeous natural setting — sheds light on the things we are capable, all of us, of getting right, together. It’s a little schmaltzy when I spell it out in so many words, but important to recognize nonetheless. Sitting still and watching the music unfold isn’t “doing nothing” about the horror that exists elsewhere. It’s embracing the humanity that exists right here.
As the set moves along, Sean Watkins steps to the mic to introduce “21st of May” and says something along the lines of, “Remember a few years ago when the world was going to end? We got real close, but it didn’t happen.” We laugh because we all know nothing is ever as damning as it might feel in the moment. Progress is made. And, in the meantime, there is peace — and music — somewhere, every day.