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For Nickel Creek, embracing life's friction is worth celebrating

When Nickel Creek performs Thursday evening at Ting Pavilion, listeners will hear the latest songs from the group’s new album alongside favorites that reach back two decades.

"Celebrants" was released in March, and band members are delighted that listeners already can sing the songs, guitarist Sean Watkins said.

"It has been really great," said Watkins, who performs in the band with sister Sara Watkins on fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin. "The crowds have been singing along with the new album already. We couldn’t have asked for a better rollout."

Hearing old and new works side by side gives audience members a sentimental glimpse of the band’s journey and growth.

"We’ve been playing the old songs pretty close to the albums," Watkins said. "We want the old material to be what it is. Side by side with the new stuff, it gives it different meaning."

Watkins said Thile is back in fine form after three weeks of vocal rest.

When Nickel Creek gets back together after taking breaks, the creative side projects its members have been working on in the meantime can inform the band’s sound in inviting new ways, Watkins said. It can be easy to develop a kind of tunnel vision when focusing on the same sounds exclusively, and side projects can encourage latent talents and fresh inspirations to leaven the band’s output.

That’s important when you’ve been playing music together since 1989. Watkins was 12 when the accomplished preteens performed their first gig at That Pizza Place in their hometown of Carlsbad, California; Thile’s father, Scott, was their bass player. In the band’s early days, Watkins played the mandolin, and Thile was the guitarist.

Originally formed as a bluegrass band, Nickel Creek released six albums between 1993 and 2006, picking up a best contemporary folk album Grammy Award for "This Side" in 2003 and gathering a loyal genre-spanning following before taking a break in 2007.

"After we took our first hiatus in 2007, I came to a reckoning," he said. "When you’re in a band, you don’t know where your personality ends and the band’s begins.

"When we show up together, it’s always beneficial. It’s definitely good for the overall band relationship."

Each is bringing a wealth of independent experiences to share — including bluegrass and the Baroque. Thile started performing with Punch Brothers, won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2012 and began recording and performing with bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He also served as host of "Live from Here," the successor to Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion."

Sara Watkins, who also plays guitar and ukulele, toured with Jackson Browne and with The Decemberists, for whom she also played percussion. She teamed up with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan to perform as the trio I’m With Her. Her eponymous solo album was produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

Sean Watkins contributes influences from his side-project time in the supergroup Works Progress and the duo Fiction Family

Performing together in support of "Celebrants" is exciting in a way that Watkins said he could not have foreseen in the band’s early days.

"We’re very fortunate. We were so young it was hard to see past your 30s — or even your 20s," Watkins said. "We’re grateful to feel like not only a band, but a band that’s growing and thriving."

The title of "Celebrants" refers not only to those who celebrate but also to people who perform certain rituals, such as weddings or worship services. The performers are bringing a sense of devotion and purpose that’s shaped by the deepening maturity of their bonds as a band and their appreciation of each other’s contributions.

In February 2021, "when we wrote the album, we were still in the middle of the pandemic," Watkins said. The members had 75 to 80 days together to write, to reconnect as musicians and teammates — and to dream of being back on the road.

"When we started writing, we were thinking about how beautiful it was to be back together as a band," he said. "The album, a lot of it, is about the friction inherent in any meaningful relationship. If you embrace the friction, there’s a lot to be grateful for."

Fans have heard Nickel Creek in Charlottesville on a 2007 bill with Fiona Apple and again in 2014. Thursday’s show is a date that originally was scheduled for May 1, and tickets purchased for that date will be honored at the gate.


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