Musicians return to Nickel Creek 7 years later

Band members pursued slew of solo, side projects

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If you go

What: Nickel Creek in concert.

When: 8 p.m. May 16.

Where: McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., Portland.

Cost: Sold out.

Additional show: Nickel Creek will return to Oregon to headline the Pickathon music festival, Aug. 1 to 3 at the Pendarvis Farm, 16581 SE Hagen Road, Happy Valley, Ore. Visit http://pickathon.com for more information.

When Nickel Creek went on hiatus seven years ago, mandolin player Chris Thile said the decision was simply a product of feeling they couldn't make a better album than "Why Should the Fire Die?" — the 2005 album that marked the third and final release by the trio during their initial time together.

"With 'Fire,' I do think it was the best record we had made, and I also really did feel like there wasn't a way to beat it at that point," Thile said in an early April phone interview. "It felt like we had drained the well dry."

Now that Thile and his Nickel Creek bandmates, siblings Sean (guitar) and Sara Watkins (violin), have reunited after doing other musical projects, released a new Nickel Creek album, "A Dotted Line," and started an extensive tour, the trio has also learned another important lesson about themselves.They know there is life after Nickel Creek — and this is giving them a new perspective on the group.

"We don't need Nickel Creek to be everything," Thile said. "Before, basically it was like a well that … we were draining it because we had to get everything that we wanted out of music from Nickel Creek.

"So we're not imposing certain aspects of our musical agendas on our respective projects, which means Nickel Creek gets to develop more naturally than it ever has, because we can come back to it now and go, 'Oh, as a trio, this is what we're really good at,' " he said. "Let's do that, instead of like again, someone having an idea that would really be better for a different project, but because this is all we've got, we're kind of like ramming it down the other two musicians' throats. That's the main difference I see."

The three musicians were certainly busy during their time away from Nickel Creek.

Thile made four albums with Punch Brothers, an ensemble that was even more bluegrass oriented than Nickel Creek, but pushed its music in adventurous directions within that genre.

Thile also did a 2011 album, "The Great Rodeo Sessions," which featured collaborations with Yo-Yo-Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer and won a 2013 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. He further broadened his musical horizons with a 2013 solo album of his arrangements for mandolin of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas.

Sean Watkins released two albums with Fiction Family, his duo project with Switchfoot singer Jon Foreman. He also formed Work Progress Administration, a folk-rock group that also featured Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glenn Phillips and fiddler Luke Bulla.

Sara Watkins also contributed to WPA but focused mainly on starting a solo career. Her two solo albums, a 2009 self-titled release and 2012's "Sun Midnight Sun," were produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones.

Finally, last year, Thile and the Watkins siblings began to consider a Nickel Creek reunion. They realized 2014 would mark the 25th anniversary of the group, which played its first show at a San Diego pizza parlor when Thile and Sara Watkins were eight and Sean Watkins was 12. Initially, the threesome thought it might record an EP and play a few shows, but things progressed from there.

"As we started working on new music, it just started coming," Thile said. "So that was very encouraging. We were like 'Wow, we might be able to get a whole record together.' We're all sitting there going, 'I really like this.' So we just got more and more ambitious with it."

"A Dotted Line" feels like it picks up where "Why Should the Fire Die?" left off. Like that previous album, new songs such as "Christmas Eve," "21st of May" and "Where Is Love Now" have rich melodies and blur the lines between bluegrass, folk, country and pop. But the three musicians sound more assured — with Sara Watkins especially displaying new confidence as a vocalist — while the playing is tight and assertive.

Thile is eager to see how the public responds to "A Dotted Line" and to Nickel Creek's live shows. If the response is positive, he feels he and the Watkins siblings can reconvene periodically as Nickel Creek alongside their other projects.

"If we can get people to come with us, then I think it would be great to keep making music," he said. "The only thing that could make it tricky to do that is if people only want to hear the old (songs). We'll do it. We're happy to go look at the baby photos, and it can be fun, but we don't want to have to actually live there.

"I'm just nothing but honored that our music made as much of an impression on people as it did," he said. "But at the same time, we all grow, and I don't think anyone wants to be around people who are putting on an act, who are faking anything. So that would be the only tricky part. But like I said, hopefully it won't be like that."