Nickel Creek; Minneapolis, MN

Nickel Creek in one word: Flawless.

Set aside for one moment the fact that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are obviously masters of their instruments. You know an instrumentalist is a true musician when he or she can make you giggle without saying a word or batting an eyelash.

The show began with “Helena,” a surprising but effective choice. The trio, plus bassist Mark Schatz, flowed easily through a diverse number of songs. Most were songs available on CD, some were new. The musicianship was unbelievable, the technicalities of the execution were impeccable, and the realization that all of that sound was coming from those four little instruments is something that will be to me, forever, absolutely priceless.

So many things shone through in this live show that are just not apparent in recordings. Sara, for example, is a singer. I’ve never been terribly impressed with Sara, but seeing her perform tonight, it was hard to take my eyes from her. Chris is truly the most phenomenal musician with whom I have ever had the pleasure of being in the same room. I have never heard a clearer, more beautiful sound come from a mandolin. Sean’s guitar skills have just not been showcased enough.

The most surprising and engaging factor of all was the humor all four musicians on stage delivered. A jack-o-lantern sat on the rack next to Mark, and at one point, he took off the hat he was wearing, placed it on the pumpkin, and put the top of the pumpkin on his head. Sara is just quirky, and had the ability to make the audience giggle by moving around in a way that seemed to be natural to her, yet to the rest of us, quite amusing. Chris is truly a physical comedian, playing with the mandolin and his body from head to toe, creating a level of entertainment I didn’t know was possible. Sean is witty with his words, and told Chris at one point he’d missed his calling as a radio DJ, and that maybe he should just give up the mandolin. After Chris had humorously asked the crowd to sing along with the next tune, “Scotch and Chocolate,” which is a normally wordless song, all four served up an impromptu lyric writing session, pondering what the audience could possibly sing. “Ooh!” Sara cried excitedly. “Just sing all of the names of your favorite scotches and chocolates!” And they did.

Magical musical moments filled two hours, but one of the most notable was the performance of the song “When in Rome.” Chris was in top vocal form, and though you know some kooky production techniques were used when the song was recorded, listening to this song and seeing them perform it live, the extra boost the production seemed to give it at one time didn’t even matter anymore. I have never seen so much energy radiate from three people, so much love, respect, giddiness, aggression and passion, all at one time. Not as I did when they played this song. And I knew I wasn’t imagining what I’d felt when the song ended, each of them went back to their microphones, and Chris gasped into his, still out of breath, “Man, that was fun.” The crowd erupted in appreciative applause.

Other notable moments: The group gathered around one microphone, Sara on ukulele, performing “Anthony;” Sean and Chris starting “Somebody More Like You,” and on the spot, deciding to go slow motion, and stopping mid-intro to do the slowest high five ever performed in history, and Chris’s desperate plea, “if you’re gonna leave me, set me up with one of your friends.”

(the words are easier to understand here, but it’s just Chris, not Nickel Creek, which is why I posted the one I did…)

The closing number was a song from the group’s first album, “The Lighthouse’s Tale,” which was my favorite besides “When in Rome.” The vocal was truly full of lament, the harmony between the fiddle and mandolin left me trembling inside, and an extra instrumental was added before the last verse, telling more of the story than even the eloquently put-together words could. The energy built and built until there was nowhere else to go, the tide receded, and the last verse was sung. When the last note was finally played, I found myself gasping, not knowing when I’d stopped breathing, and quite sure I would never feel again as I did in that moment.

The encore gave the audience what they’d been begging for all night: Toxic. Chris pretending to be Britney (back when Britney was enthusiastic about being on stage, that is)? PRICELESS.

I showed up at the Nickel Creek show completely biased toward Chris Thile. I’m a big fan of Chris’s solo work and especially his work with the Punch Brothers. Still, it wasn’t “The Chris Show” by any means, and even my strong bias was destroyed by the time we’d heard five minutes of music. The whole group was amazing, and the talents of these four combined made for one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever been had the pleasure to attend.

I’ve seen Sawyer Brown, Phil Vassar, Sugarland, Blue Moon Rising, Reba McEntire, among many others. Nickel Creek tops them all. Nickel Creek was better than all of them combined. Farewell (for now), Nickel Creek. We will miss you.

Chris? Bring on the Punch Brothers.