Bluegrass And Bennett

In case you missed one of the best shows to come to Charleston in a while, newly reunited Nickel Creek, and eternally youthful Tony Bennett played stellar shows on two consecutive nights at the PAC.

This past weekend brought a couple of spectacular acts to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. First, on Thursday night, the newly reunited bluegrass act Nickel Creek rolled into town for a show at the PAC. The band is celebrating its 25th anniversary, which seems a little strange, because the band members are all in their 30’s. Nickel Creek’s guitarist, Sean Watkins, is the senior member of the group at 37, meaning he was 12 when the band started. The other two band members, fiddle player Sara Watkins (Sean’s sister) and mandolin player Chris Thile, were still in the single digits when the band formed. 

After an impressive run through the 90’s, and the early part of the new millennium, the trio parted ways in 2007. All three went on to play in other projects, most notably Thile’s stint in Punch Brothers, a band that has redefined bluegrass music. When Thile and the Watkins siblings realized that 2014 was the band’s 25th anniversary, they reconvened with the intent of perhaps recording and releasing an EP to celebrate the milestone. Instead the recording sessions gave birth to a full album, “A Dotted Line,” which was released on earlier this month.    

Despite the young ages of the band members, Nickel Creek has always been well respected by other musicians. They’ve toured with the likes of Bela Fleck and Gillian Welch, and bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, produced one of the band’s earlier albums. The reunion and the release of the new album caused quite a buzz in the bluegrass community, and the PAC saw a pretty decent turnout Thursday night for the show. 

The opening band, The Secret Sisters, charmed the crowd with a combination of beautiful singing and funny between-song banter. A standout song from the sister duo of Laura and Lydia Rogers was a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Lonely Island,” which they absolutely nailed. The Secret Sisters is a band that will hopefully return to Charleston soon, as their opening slot was far too brief.

Once Nickel Creek took to the stage though, the crowd that was already stoked by the opener absolutely exploded when the first bars of “Destination,” a tune from the new album, started. Accompanied only by an upright bass player, Nickel Creek demonstrated that the time off certainly hadn’t dulled the talents of any of these musicians. An early performance of “The Lighthouse’s Tale” got huge applause, as did later songs such as “Scotch & Chocolate” and “Ode to a Butterfly.” Each musician got a chance to take the reins on their respective instrument during most songs, and while Sean and Sara Watkins are both amazing players, time and time again it was Thile who received the biggest applause thanks to his amazingly fast mandolin picking, and his penchant for being a bit of a ham. Thile changed to a slightly larger mandolin for one of my favorite Nickel Creek tunes, “Smoothie Song,” which beautifully allowed the three to work together building a gorgeous instrumental. 

Later songs performed included “Anthony,” “Elephant in the Corn,” and a cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft.” The band ended it’s main set with another crowd favorite, “The Fox,” and then returned for a three song encore that included “Helena,” “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Where Is Love Now.” 

In between songs the band gushed about what a beautiful city Charleston was. “So do you guys just wake up in the morning and feel smug?” joked Thile while addressing the audience. The audience gave the love back, quite literally. After the band played the romantically themed “Anthony” a male voice from the crowd called out, “I love you, Sara!” “Is your name Anthony?” asked the fiddle player. “It’s anything you need it to be!” replied the smitten fan. “Friendly folks here in Charleston,” quipped Sara with a smile. 

As if seeing the reunion of one of the best bluegrass acts wasn’t enough, Friday night I was right back at the PAC for an evening with Tony Bennett. I’ve always loved Bennett’s voice, and his interpretations of songs from the American Songbook are second to none. I had to admit going in that I was a bit worried that Bennett, who is 87 years old, might do a show in the same manner B.B. King did when he played the PAC a year ago. King spent a lot of time talking, and letting the crowd sing, while occasionally playing part of one of his classics such as “The Thrill is Gone.” It was still great to see that living legend perform onstage with his trusty guitar Lucille, but King was the same age as Bennett back then. I needn’t have worried. Despite his advanced age, Bennett came out after a short opening show by his daughter, Antonia, and proceeded to work the sort of magic that has allowed him to chart in every decade since  the 1950’s. Backed by a jazz quartet consisting of a pianist, guitarist, bassist, and drummer, Bennett performed for what might have been ninety of the most perfect musical minutes I’ve ever seen. He used no notes, no lyrics on a music stand, no teleprompter. It was all in Bennett’s head, and the singer never missed a note. 

Highlights of Bennett’s set included his famous version of Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart,” which Bennett has made his own, as well as classics like “Sing You Sinners,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “The Good Life.” 

Bennett seemed to drink in the audience’s enthusiasm, and his performances of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) and Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” got him a standing ovation. After several encores, which included Bennett crooning Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” as well as “When You’re Smiling” and an impressive “Fly Me to the Moon,” the artist soaked up the adoration of one more curtain call before the house lights came up. 

I was hoping for Bennett to be good, but I was unprepared for just how at the top of his game the singer was at this stage in his life. He never faltered, never hit a sour note, and was smiling and charming the entire ninety minutes he was onstage. I would put Friday night’s performance right up there among the best I’ve seen in 30 years of attending concerts. Bennett is a true original, and it makes me a little sad when I realize that there really aren’t many more like him that are still breathing, much less performing. Bennett has said in interviews that he’ll keep performing until he dies, likening himself to artists like Picasso, who worked right up until the end. Hopefully that end will take its time in coming, so more folks can experience what I did last Friday night.