Nickel Creek is arguably the most original and daring bluegrass group to emerge in, well, quite a spell. The youthful San Diego trio—mandolin/banjo/bouzouki player Chris Thile, guitarist Sean Watkins and fiddler Sara Watkins—has not only made a name for itself on the progressive bluegrass circuit (and believe you me, it's a helluva circuit!), but it's also whipped up an appeal stretching far beyond the genre's core following.
And why not? Although Nickel Creek respects traditional bluegrass, they're not mired in it. This ain't your papa's old-time bluegrass, friends. Think about it: Can you name one band that can beautifully cover the Stanley Brothers and Pavement, Nirvana and the Beatles?
It's this very spirit of adventure that has brought us several side or solo projects: Thile and Sean Watkins have released solo albums; the threesome, along with Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips, recently formed MAS (Mutual Admiration Society); and siblings Sean and Sara occasionally perform—as they will this week—as a duo under the Watkins Family Hour moniker.
Sean, the pair's principal songwriter, has been exploring what he calls "quality pop." Focusing on melody, lyricism and modern sounds, he has moved from the primarily acoustic instrumentation of Nickel Creek to keyboards, drum machines, samples and loops on his latest solo album, 26 Miles, supercharged by the fiery fiddle work of sister Sara.
It's not hard, particularly in concert, to spot some of the Celtic, jazz, classical and pop influences that twinkle around Sara's musical persona. She delights in an eclecticism that has come to define the Watkins Family Hour, as her playing is fueled by an undeniable enthusiasm.
While playing a recent, long-running residency at Largo in Los Angeles, the Watkins Family Hour gave Sean and Sara the chance to dabble in the unknown. Experimentation is the springboard for creative growth, you know, so with influences as diverse as Elliott Smith, Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan and Laurie Lewis, this brother-and-sister act ventures into whatever musical direction their muse may lead them.
THE WATKINS FAMILY HOUR WITH SPECIAL GUESTS AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; WWW.OCMA.NET. THURS., NOV. 18, 8:30 P.M. $30-$35. ALL AGES.