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ISSUE 118 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/8/2005

Lutefest headliner chosen

By Rob Martin
Arts Editor

Friday, April 8, 2005

Newgrass sensation Nickel Creek will soon offer a country answer to last year’s blues-oriented Lutefest headliners, Indigenous. The youthful trio builds upon bluegrass conventions – incorporating pop, jazz and folk influences into a fresh synthesis all their own.

Nickel Creek’s folktale beginnings give their art an authenticity which pre-packaged musical acts cannot fabricate. Thirteen years ago, mandolin phenomenon Chris Thile met fiddler Sara Watkins and her guitarist brother Sean while attending a bluegrass show at “That Pizza Place” in southern California. The band formed right there and the rest, as they say, is history.

Their self-titled debut album arrived just in time for the folk/bluegrass frenzy set off by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Good timing helped boost the album to gold status (500,000 albums sold) – much to the band members’ surprise. The group’s second studio recording, 2002’s This Side, proved the group to be more than benefactors of a fad.

Nickel Creek, half of which is instrumental, showcases the trio’s immense technical mastery of string and voice. Thile’s dizzying mandolin licks and Sara’s flowing fiddling embellish tracks like “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and “When You Come Back Down.” The sometimes ecstatic, sometimes contemplative album feels like an acoustic odyssey.

With This Side, Nickel Creek left the heavily instrumental identity of their first album behind, featuring only the vocal-less “Smoothie Song” to tie the two albums together. On This Side, the band wanders deeper into alt-rock and pop influences with songs like their cover of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” and “Green and Gray,” though they never forsake the newgrass twang of their first album.

With the faithful and compelling cover of bluegrass staple “House Carpenter,” Nickel Creek proved themselves worthy guides to the future of newgrass. This Side further established the trio, winning a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Folk Album;” former winners include Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Nickel Creek records under the Sugar Hill record label, whose artists include Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. The label’s motto – “contemporary music with traditional roots” – perfectly suits Nickel Creek’s postmodern take on traditional bluegrass.

Most recently, Nickel Creek teamed up with Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket) to form the Mutual Admiration Society (MAS). Together, they recorded and mixed their self-titled album in only six days. Nickel Creek provides the soundtrack for the vocal musings of songwriter Phillips.

Aside from Nickel Creek, Chris Thile and Sean Watkins both maintain successful solo projects. Thile recently released his fifth solo effort, Deceiver.

Pause Concert Chair Mary Henry ’06 hopes Nickel Creek will boost Lutefest’s attendance and galvanize the festival’s place among St. Olaf’s annual traditions. “We’re trying to start a new tradition by instilling Lutefest in the hearts of St. Olaf students,” she said.

Fellow newgrassers Trampled By Turtles and St. Olaf’s own Matt Johnson Band, which won St. Olaf ‘s 2004 “Battle of the Bands” will open for Nickel Creek. Four other campus bands will round out the schedule of performers for the day.

Rumors about the potential Lutefest appearances of Death Cab for Cutie and Cake may finally rest in peace – Nickel Creek reigns over this year’s Lutefest. “We want Lutefest to be even bigger and more exciting than last year,” Henry said. “We hope to set a mountaintop standard to continue from in future years.”

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