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Friday, November 02, 2007

End of the road for Nickel Creek?

The members of Nickel Creek say farewell (for now) while they pursue their own projects.

Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek: violinist/singer Sara Watkins, mandolinist Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins

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Nickel Creek's last album was titled "Why Should the Fire Die?" It's ironic, given that the band is taking a break -- maybe for good.

But it's a needed change for three young musicians who have been playing music together since they were pre-teens, said the band's violinist/singer, Sara Watkins.

"It's been the majority of our focus for the majority of our lives," said Watkins, 26. "It's pretty much all that I know. It takes the dominant role in the way that I live my life, and the way that each of us does. And that's really great, and that's what a band typically does, and that's wonderful.

"But on the other hand I think we're very excited about the idea of staying home more, and as we've developed our own interests, you know, really go after those things and not tie ourselves down to this one thing simply because it's what we've done so long."

So after 18 years together, Nickel Creek is on its "Farewell (for now) Tour," including a Monday night stop at Roanoke's Jefferson Center. Opening the show is Dave "Gruber" Allen. He played the guidance counselor on "Freaks and Geeks" and lately has starred on Comedy Central as the Naked Trucker from "The Naked Trucker and T-Bones" show. Watkins said that Allen will be warming up the audience with some comedy.

Sound like a strange pairing? Not if you hang out at Largo, the Los Angeles dinner, music and comedy club where Nickel Creek has become a fixture. The band first visited Largo about five years ago, hoping to catch a favorite band, Toad the Wet Sprocket. Toad had broken up by then, but bandleader Glen Phillips was playing there regularly. The band wound up joining Phillips onstage for nearly an entire set, Watkins said. Eventually, she and her brother Sean had their own regular Thursday gig there -- the Watkins Family Hour. Rounding out the family: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' keyboardist Benmont Tench and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.

Other guests on the Farewell (for now) Tour are also pals from Largo, Sara Watkins said. Phillips and uber-producer Jon Brion have been out. Allen, the comedian, has joined the band for other dates.

Fiona Apple toured with the band, performing a bluegrass version of her 1996 hit, "Criminal," and impressing the band with her work ethic.

"In the course of experimenting with that during sound check, we witnessed her do this huge morphing of her approach for the song, and relearning how to sing it, singing it a completely different way," Watkins said. "It was really, really cool to watch."

Largo has been more than a place to find collaborators, Watkins said. She is finding her own way as a musician there, too.

"I've gained a lot of confidence and a lot of awareness of just what I like and what I like to do and who I am onstage," she said. "And it's really been a big part of developing and preparing for a solo project."

Ah, a solo project. Since 2000, when the band released the first of its three critically lauded and commercially successful records on Sugar Hill, both mandolinist Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins have released solo albums. Sara, though, said she has barely performed on her own.

Yet another powerful musician -- Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones -- will produce the record. Jones had toured with another Nickel Creek/Glen Phillips product, the one-off Mutual Admiration Society, and has become friends with the band. Watkins said she'll record part of the record in Los Angeles, and part in Nashville, Tenn. It'll be a vocal-heavy album, with a couple of instrumentals, she said.

"I'm going to tour behind it," she said. "I'm also going to be, in the meantime, before it comes out, doing solo shows and opening for people and trying to get acquainted with the stage when it's just me up there."

So, maybe one fire will die. But from that, three more mean to burn bright.

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