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Enjoying the skin they're in

Nickel Creek stops worrying about how the band is categorized and concentrates on adding new flavor to its acoustic sound.

Published November 17, 2005

The scene: Nickel Creek's 2003 appearance at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. After a 20-minute delay, the acoustic group soldiers on despite having only one working microphone. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, must carefully dart in and out when stepping up to the microphone so as to not spear one another with their instruments.

Asked if he recalls the show, Sean Watkins has to think for a moment.

"Sometimes you have to work around something," he says matter-of-factly. After all, the three friends (Thile and Sara Watkins are 24; Sean Watkins is 28) are veterans of live performance, having first played together as kids in 1989.

It seems the Grammy-winning group is always working around something, whether it's a faulty sound system or completely rethinking its artistic direction. This year the trio released its third album, Why Should the Fire Die?, moving them further away from their musical roots.

Think modern rock with acoustic instruments and bluegrass virtuosity.

Fire is more aggressive and sonically ambitious than Nickel Creek's self-titled debut in 2000 or 2002's eclectic This Side, both of which melded bluegrass, folk and pop and were produced by their friend Alison Krauss. This time, Nickel Creek turned to rock producers Eric Valentine (Smashmouth, Queens of the Stone Age) and Tony Berg.

Some have called the record dark.

"I don't think that's the right adjective," Sean Watkins says, speaking recently from a noisy coffee shop during a tour stop in Columbia, Mo. "It deals with things that aren't as happy and lighthearted, but there's other things to explore songwriting-wise."

One of those explorations on Fire is Watkins' own Somebody More Like You, in which a failed relationship is dismissed with the bitter:

"I hope you meet someone your height so you can see eye to eye/with someone as small as you."

Sounds personal, but Watkins says no. "I've never really experienced that feeling," he says. "I've had a mild version. That song just came out of (how) I thought of that line ("I hope you find somebody more like you") and thought it was worth writing a song around it."

Watkins says Fire is the most definitive picture of the band's musical personality so far.

"The first record was a great mix of songs and recording techniques. The second one was awkward. It was mostly us as a band not being comfortable with who we are and being categorized as a country band.

"We were too busy thinking about what people categorized us as."

That self-consciousness is gone on Fire. The group's songwriting is starting to rise to the level of its instrumental chops. Thile and the Watkins siblings get to channel their inner rock stars, while also revealing three distinct musical personalities who complement one another as tightly as a chamber ensemble.

Take Thile's pensive Helena, whose layered sound builds on the drums of producer Valentine until a listener braces for the inevitable electric-guitar crunch. Instead, Sara Watkins' violin swoops in for a wispy solo before the song builds to a finish. The propulsive Best of Luck, a tale of obsessive love written by all three Nickel Creekers and sung by the violinist, would sound at home on college radio. She also lightens the mix with a sweet, gentle reading of Bob Dylan's Tomorrow is a Long Time and the old-timey Anthony.

"We really do have equal input," Sean Watkins says of perceptions that the band's driving creative force is Thile.

Thile "has gotten crazy critical acclaim and is an amazing musician," Watkins says of his bandmate. "I'm really surprised that people have been as fair to (all of) us as they have."

And does that extend to the band's new direction?

"It's fun to try and throw some rock down," Watkins says. "We play acoustic instruments, so it's a definite challenge to try and get that feel."

Sometimes you just have to work around something.


Nickel Creek performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. $29.50. Call (813) 238-8001 or (813) 274-8981.

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