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And They'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning: 

Nickel Creek's l'il pilgrims progress, cope, burn, chill

Nickel Creek's self-titled Sugar Hill debut in 2000 was a vivid mix of youngblood joy and anxiety running through bluegrass. Raised conservatively -- but in Southern California -- the trio were prodigies living near prodigals, singing: "My greatest fear will be that you will crash and burn, and I won't feel your fire, I'm hung up on that wire."

Nickel Creek's wires included those on the mandolin, banjo and bouzouki of Chris Thile, then 19 (he's the tallest, and most excitable-sounding); the fiddle of Sara Watkins, at 18; the guitar of her brother Sean, who was 23; and the little-but-wiry vocals of all, who have performed and recorded together since childhood. On their very first album, 1993's Little Cowpoke, the band featured the traditional (and Hollywood) Western stylings of Chris, age 12; Sara, 11; and Sean, 15. (Be sure to request that era's "I'm an Old Cowhand," when they come to town.)

The 2000 release went gold, which is unusual for bluegrass, but so is the trio's music. Not so much the classical and jazz elements; those are fairly typical of progressive bluegrass. The young Nickels already had a strikingly personal point of view. Songs like "A Lighthouse's Tale" were early glimpses of their take on the world's beauty and wreckage, between the sea and the mountains, home and the freeway. Nickel Creek also sounded like they were ready to hit the road, Jack. There was one potential problem they were taking with them.

"Look at my girlfriend, isn't she pretty?" Chris asked, shakily, clutching his mandolin and staring down into its "face" for CMT's cameras, in late 2001. "I don't wanna boyfriend!" Sara laughingly answered a nosy reporter in the same mini-documentary, while still sounding like she meant it. Nickel Creek's energies seemed entirely focused on their music, and the resulting nervous edge was smoothed out by producer Alison Krauss, who brought the atmospheric sound of her own successful bluegrass-pop albums to the trio's work. The blend was distinctive, which may well be why Nickel Creek ended up in Billboard's Country Top Twenty in 2002.

On their second album, 2002's This Side, there were coded, subdued indications that Nickel Creek's (very) private lives were getting more complicated. But This Side's subtleties became hard to listen to, as Krauss' cautious approach now made the music too predictable. The group's new Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill) sports more versatile producers, Eric Valentine and Tony Berg, who make the dark moments seem dramatic now. The numbing down of This Side is receding.

On Fire, the Nickels sound like they've been easing into the kind of places they once could only enter via the stage door. And they've kept up with their homework. The disc's first single, "When in Rome," doesn't fiddle around except in the musical sense, as Sara's sweet, snake-charmer strings chime around Chris's calls: "Hey, those books you gave us look good on the shelves at home, and they'll burn warm in the fireplace, Teacher, when in Rome. Grab a blanket, sister, we'll make smoke signals, bring in some new blood, it feels like we're alone."

There are also plenty of candlelight confessions, which underscore what seems to be a more direct lyrical tack. Some boasting about what bad li'l pilgrims they are surfaces, as each Nickel contributes to the songwriting and takes turns singing lead. The only consistently disappointing track is Sara's wispy version of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time." Brief instrumentals provide refreshment, while adding momentum. And "Doubting Thomas" is a confession so mature it's inspiring, especially since it leads to the breakthrough of the title song, in which love and doubt aren't just risked and endured, but embraced. If you can grow up to that point, then indeed, why should the fire die?

Nickel Creek plays at Ovens Auditorium, with opener Leona Naess, on October 13 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $24.50-$29.50. Call 704-522-6500 or go to www.musictoday.com.

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