NASHVILLE Neither of the opening-night acts for the Ryman Auditorium's summer bluegrass series inhabit the genre's mainstream. Nickel Creek use bluegrass as the starting point for a broader acoustic sound, while Vince Gill makes it a touchstone for his country music.
The Thursday double bill in the historic Nashville venue played to a capacity audience of more than 2,000. If the audience (which included members of SheDaisy) objected to the nontraditional kick-off to a series that will include Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs, they didn't show it. Both acts received standing ovations.
Still in their 20s, Nickel Creek Sara Watkins (fiddle), Chris Thile (mandolin) and Sean Watkins (guitar), assisted by Derek Jones on bass blend bluegrass with Celtic, pop, classical and jazz styles. They've played Keith Whitley's bluegrass gospel tune "You Don't Have to Move That Mountain" since they were Southern California teens, but the song got a jazzy treatment here, complete with bass solo and electronically altered acoustic guitar.
A prodigy in his prime, Thile is the band's onstage focus. Like mandolinist Sam Bush, a key influence, he stamps his feet, sways back and forth, bobs his head and mugs with his bandmates. "We're so freakin' happy to be here," he said.
Nickel Creek's short set included the instrumentals "Ode to a Butterfly" and Watkins' "Ferdinand the Bull." Thile sang "The Lighthouse's Tale," "When You Come Back Down" and "The Fox" (in which he also spat out the rapid-fire lyrics of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues") in a breathy tenor reminiscent of Ron Sexsmith or Josh Rouse.
"You gotta know I'm comfortable in my own skin to come out on mandolin after that little brat," Gill said after his opening number, "Crying Holy Unto the Lord." Gill, an accomplished guitarist, played mandolin throughout his set accompanied by regular sideman Jeff White (guitar and harmony vocals) and by Del McCoury bandmembers Jason Carter (fiddle), Robbie McCoury (banjo) and Mike Bub (bass).
The Ryman performance marked a return to Gill's roots: After leaving his native Oklahoma at 18, he moved to Louisville to play with Bluegrass Alliance. Dressed in jeans and hiking boots, his shirttail out, he warned that he might forget some words and occasionally did, including the first line of his own "High Lonesome Sound."
Gill adapted a few of his country songs including "Oklahoma Borderline," "Go Rest High on That Mountain" "Key to Life" and his recent "Feels Like Love" to fill out his bluegrass repertoire. He explained that he wrote "When I Call Your Name" as a bluegrass song, then made it a country number by "playing it really, really, really, really slow."
Gill dedicated the uptempo bluegrass standard "Pig in a Pen" to his wife, Amy Grant, who watched the show from the front row.
Jesse Winchester's "Tennessee Blues," recorded by Gill during a 1975 session with Bluegrass Alliance, proved a highlight. And Earl Scruggs' "Flint Hill Special" gave McCoury and the rest of the band another chance to shine on their instruments.
Nickel Creek joined Gill for the evening's final encores. "OK," said Gill before counting off Jimmy Martin's "Walking Shoes," "if this is really fast, I don't want a solo." But he went ahead and took one and well.