Nickel Creek – Master Musician’s Festival (Somerset, KY)
One of Kentucky’s — and the festival circuit’s — best-kept secrets is the Master Musician’s Festival near Somerset, Kentucky. Now in its eighth year, the MMF is situated on a flat rise in the shadow of three mountains in the Appalachian foothills.
On the final night of the festival, Nickel Creek has packed the field to bursting at the edges. The people are tired from dancing in the heat, but when Nickel Creek takes the stage, a second wind seems to slide into everyone. As the group stands in the darkness trying to get their sound check worked out, everyone rises. The crowd surges forward. A large group of teenage girls, squealing about guitarist Sean Watkins’ marquee mug, squeezes as close to the stage as possible.
Nickel Creek finally opens with an unnamed original instrumental that sets the whole crowd to moving about. The sound is clear and chill-bump-inducing on the night air. The teen girls begin clogging and don’t stop for the rest of the show. Herein lies the success of Nickel Creek: Dancing in the field are young girls with halter tops and nose rings, grandfathers bouncing newborns on their hips, a pregnant woman who looks miserable in her tight dress but bobs about ecstatically to the sound of Chris Thile’s mandolin.
Thile comes off as the focal point of the stage. He’s damn good, and he knows it. He plays the mandolin with the body language of metalhead, his body a constant motion. During “The Fox”, Thile seems to float off and leave the rest of the group when he goes into an incredibly long mandolin solo. Obviously spontaneous, the solo is beautifully picked, but also somewhat uncomfortable; it goes on so long that Sean Watkins chugs a whole bottle of water and his sister, fiddler Sara, begins to swat at the bugs circling her head.
Seeing Nickel Creek live solidifies the notion that Sara’s vocal chops were not fully explored on their self-titled album. She belts out “You Don’t Have To Move That Mountain” in growls and whispers, reaching every note perfectly. On the album, her voice is soothing and peaceful. On this night, she lets it all rip, and the crowd eats it up.
Thile’s voice is in perfect form as well. As he sings “When You Come Back Down”, the audience joins along in a respectful whisper. By the time the band tears into “Ferdinand The Bull”, an instrumental from Sean’s solo album, it seems as if everyone here can clog. When they do “The Hand Song” as their encore, a mesmerized hush befalls the crowd. People can’t seem to decide what they like best — Sean’s strumming, Sara’s fiddling, or Thile’s mandolin mastery.
At night’s end, Nickel Creek passes the true test of a great live performance: Once everyone heads home and the imminent traffic jam ensues, people roll down their car windows, wait for the line to lurch forward, and crank up their Nickel Creek tapes or CDs, wanting to hear more.