Nickel Creek takes Snowmass stage | AspenTimes.com

Nickel Creek takes Snowmass stage

Steve Alldredge
Snowmass Village correspondent

Acoustic trio Nickel Creek performs on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village on Saturday. (nickelcreek.com)

“Post-modern bluegrass.” “Sparkling acoustic licks.” “The finest acoustic string ensemble operating today.” Of the many tributes to Nickel Creek, these three from the Washington Post, Time Magazine and The Chicago Tribune, respectively, express what all the fuss is about in a nutshell.

The Southern California band ” violinist Sara Watkins, guitarist Sean Watkins and mandolinist Chris Thile ” perform in Snowmass Village on Saturday.

They’ve played together 15 years ” a considerable span considering they range in age from 25 to 29.

Their parents’ love for bluegrass initially brought them together in a Carlsbad, Calif. pizza parlor as kids in elementary school. They ended up taking lessons from the bluegrass band, but years later, their music expands well beyond traditional bluegrass.

Time Magazine has called Nickel Creek “music innovators for the new millennium.” Their 2002 album, “This Side,” won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. This year they were Grammy-nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance. Their latest release, “Why Should the Fire Die?” has received rave reviews.

Local Chris Roach, who graduated from Aspen High School in 1998, received an assistant engineer credit on the “Why Should the Fire Die” album, working with producer Eric Valentine.

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“I was completely blown away by their musicianship,” Roach said. “Most bands can’t come into a studio and (harmonize) their voices and instruments perfectly in tune and on pitch and do it each and every time like they can.”

Producer Valentine is known for working with rock acts like Smashmouth and Queens of the Stone Age, but he called Nickel Creek’s stage performances “a powerful experience.” On-stage “they are just explosive … how can three people and their instruments sound this big?” he mused.

Sara Watkins also spoke about the trio’s sound, from a coffee shop in Missoula, Mont.

“We’ve never called ourselves bluegrass,” she said. “Sonically, we fit the qualifications because we can have a guitar, mandolin and stand-up bass on stage. But bluegrass people don’t really consider us bluegrass, we don’t have drums so we’re really not a rock and roll band.”

“We’ve been listening for years to musicians, from Bela Fleck to the Beatles,” says Thile on the band’s website. “We wanted to be challenged. Then we started writing songs … (we figured) we probably shouldn’t necessarily write songs set back in the hills about moonshine and coal-miners.”

Bluegrass or not, the band’s sound is “amazing,” Roach contends. “They have incredible mixture of styles: they can write these Radiohead-like tunes, they combine that with something abstract or bluegrass and add catchy lyrics of pop sensibilities. Working with them was a life-changing experience and I’m so glad to have that opportunity at this point in my career.”

While the band is currently touring, its members will take some time off this winter to relax and think about new projects.

“We’re thinking about Christmas album,” said Sara Watkins, “and definitely taking some time off to regroup.”

She describes their usual day-long experience on the road in happy, upbeat terms. The only downside may be the difficulty in writing new tunes.

“When you spend two-thirds of your time on the road, it’s tough to write songs,” said Watkins, “especially for me, who I think of as the most underdeveloped songwriter in the group. You need things to write about, to let your brain relax a little, and then apply life experiences that you’ve seen your friends go through or you’ve gone through. That can be difficult on the road.”

But on the road they are. And they have Snowmass in sight this week.

Nickel Creek appears on Saturday at 6 p.m. for a free show on the Fanny Hill stage.