Virtuosity was shooting off like sparks from the stage of McCaw Hall Thursday night, as the brilliant but quirky bluegrass outfit known...

Virtuosity was shooting off like sparks from the stage of McCaw Hall Thursday night, as the brilliant but quirky bluegrass outfit known as Nickel Creek tickled and dazzled a rapt, worshipful, near-capacity audience.

The long evening of intricate, folky, toe-tapping songs and instrumentals, linked by stage patter that often bordered on the ridiculous, had a special sense of purpose because the core group — mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother Sean on guitar — are going on hiatus at the end of the tour later this month.

Review


Thursday night, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center

“This is fun!” Sara Watkins blurted out around the middle of the nearly two-hour set, and she looked and sounded genuinely delighted when saying it. Both she and Thile remarked that Seattle has been one of the group’s (accompanied by bassist Mark Shatz and, on some songs, by opening act Jon Brion) strongholds ever since Nickel Creek started touring extensively in 2000. And you could feel that energy in the hall, when the crowd was silently attentive as much as when it noisily rose in standing ovations.

When Thile and the Watkins were in perfect sync, like during the extended, high-intensity “Smoothie Song” or the haunting “Lighthouse’s Tale,” the place was electric. The delight and excitement of experiencing great musicianship was palpable. Fans appreciated hearing the group’s most popular songs, including the beautiful “Jealous of the Moon,” the smart and clever workout called “The Fox,” and Sara Watkins’ romantic turn about a boy named “Anthony.”

But one of the best songs was a new one called “If You’re Going to Leave Me,” in which Thile complained “Who am I going to take to the Grammys?”

The opening set by singer-songwriter and pianist-guitarist Brion was almost like a Nickel Creek branch office, as all of them (including Shatz) joined him in duets and trios. When Brion asked for requests, and someone inevitably yelled out “Freebird!,” he and Thile ad-libbed a progressive bluegrass version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic. It was largely unrecognizable except for the lyrics, which, with Thile singing, sounded remarkably like down-home, back-porch bluegrass.

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com