Like most everybody who loves good Bluegrass, I was bummed when Nickel Creek separated in 2007. This was especially disappointing as I’d just found them, really, like many fans having heard some of their newer stuff and then digging backwards to mine the early gems. (I have a pronounced propensity for doing that – finding bands who have either just broken up or are about to. This is such a recurring condition that one of my music-loving friends has taken to sending me captionless photos of Yoko when it happens now.)
Part of the neonascent (at least for me ) Newgrass scene, and called “an American progressive acoustic music trio” in their Wikipedia entry, both descriptors equally true, these prodigies reignited my love for the sort of roots music I grew up on but then consciously moved away from, it being no longer “cool” once I hit the Worldly Wisdom years of my mid-teens. These guys, though, took what was best from that early music – the minor-chorded tragic story-songs, the Celtic fervor inherent in soaring fiddle runs and arpeggiated sprints up and down various fretted necks, the build from slow and spoken to frenetic picking and stomping, pulling unrestrained whoops and hollers from both player and played-to when they got it just right and the song reached that exact point when all was clicking, everyone in the room was right there with them, and spells were woven – and melded all that with a youthful exuberance and fresh approach that magnetized and mesmerized me.
At the time I hoped that they’d each go off and do their own things, experience great success for a few years, and then realize their folly and triumphantly reform as Nickel Creek and play together into their 90′s.
Each of them – Sara Watkins on fiddle and angelic vocals, her brother Sean on guitar and equally melodic pipes, and Chris Thile, mandolin master extraordinaire and probably the voice most fans think of when recalling an NC tune – have definitely lived up to the first part of that wish. They’ve been as busy or busier as individual artists as they were as a band, and have managed to play together along the way, too – most recently at one of the recurring Watkins Family Hour gigs in California earlier this year.
The distaff Watkins has managed to put out an enchanting solo album, produced by John Paul Jones, no less (who must have become enamored of the genre in the past few years, given his studio resume of late,) tours extensively on her own, and secured a solid touring spot with/became a member-at-large of The Decemberists, bringing to that unique pastiche of song stylings her own flavor both vocally and musically. (And she looks damn cute doing it, too.) She’s even guest hosted on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, where she’s also guested more than once. Hardly the “time off” we all feared when the Creek ran temporarily dry.
Her brother’s been no slacker, either.
With childhood friend Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Sean formed Fiction Family, whose first album released in 2009. Songs like “Elements Combined” and “Mostly Prove Me Wrong” are constantly surprising me when they shuffle back into my ears, which is often. He’s also toured with Sara and on his own, as well as collaborating with numerous others and hosting, with Sara, the previously mentioned Watkins Family Hour (which recently began its podcast run – it’s not to be missed and can be found here.)
Not to be outdone, Chris Thile has broadened his reach and his appeal with each passing year, it seems. His full-time band, Punch Brothers, brings together the best instrumentalists alive, and their experimentation, while admittedly sometimes more fun for them than for me, is stretching the genre’s muscles in ways that make it increasingly hard to call Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana or anything else. Progressive, indeed.
Thile’s latest project is just as unexpected and as charmingly eccentric as anything he’s ever done.
Goat Rodeo: the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it.
Goat Rodeo: A chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on; a situation into which it is very difficult, despite energy and efforts, to instill any sense or order.
Goat Rodeo: A situation that order cannot be brought to any time.
Given the setup, getting Thile together with Stuart Duncan (fiddle and banjo), Edgar Meyer (upright bass), and an up-and-coming cellist who we sincerely believe shows lot of promise for good things to come, Yo-Yo Ma, this project would seem to fit any of the definitions above, especially considering (a) one of the four doesn’t read music at all, and (b) Yo-yo doesn’t improvise, a staple of Thile’s and just about every other Bluegrass instrumentalist working today. Thile says he actually considered this facet a liberation rather than a restriction, which I still have not managed to fathom. He must be right, though, as sitting in James Taylor’s kitchen it seemed to present no obstacle to their coming up with eleven incredible songs, two with lyrics and the rest completely instrumental.
Of course the very nature of the successful collaboration comes from the crucible that is the studio setting. Once everyone has reached the level of profound expertise exhibited by each of these players, on-the-fly changes (albeit written down and incorporated into an unimprovised final form), recommendations, ideas and plain ol’ “what about this?” transforms the original ideas into deeper and richer communal statements, 3D versions of the previously 2D snapshots captured by their original composers.
The result is pure magic, and what the exemplary liner notes of The Goat Rodeo Sessions describes as being quintessentially American, a distinction echoed by Yo-yo during a recent appearance with Stephen Colbert. (Their outing on Leno was briefer but no less enchanting, even considering they shared the bill with a certain President.)
For the two lyrical outings it would have been logical and completely fitting to keep the vocals in-house, or in-corral if keeping with the rodeo theme, but instead they recruited one of the most vibrant and evocative voices making the rounds today. Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still and various other collaborations couldn’t have been a more effective or charming choice, and her work here sounds as ethereal and endearing as anything she’s ever done.
Of her inclusion into the rapidly gelling all-boys club, O’Donovan said in the Making Of… video that accompanies the beautiful album package that she was in fact nervous coming in. She knew they’d been bonding and developing their rapport and was likely wondering how she could both fit in and put her own stamp on the proceedings. That unsteadiness was dispelled almost immediately, she says.
Thile had texted her the first verse of “Here and Heaven,” (she promptly texted the second verse back to him), a far from traditional arrangement whose quirks and twists of phrasing they worked out largely in the studio with everyone looking on. Seeing that process on the video, while diluted due to the medium, is still chillingly revealing and a gift to witness.
With an arrow and bow and some seeds left to sow
we are staking our claim
On ground so fertile we forget who we’ve hurt along
the way and reach out for a strange hand
More snippets from that behind the scenes video:
Edgar: “You can write a beautiful piece and if we play it with no energy or insight it will just lay there.”
Stuart, speaking to Yo-yo: “There is synergy involved in our music. You and I could have been separated forever by genre if not for the vision (of), ‘It’s bound to work- it’s just music.’”
Thile: “It’s wholly unnatural for musicians like us to be separated.”
Yo-yo Ma has shown that he is always on the lookout for vehicles that could bring the cello to listeners who may not know, like or seek Classical music. He’s written and performed modern fanfares and symphonic pieces in the past, but nothing that I’m aware of approaches what to me is both a radical departure and en emphatic restatement of how passionate music - any music – can be. When I see him pistoning away in the studio as the tension builds, the tones from the 20 strings in the room weaving and bobbing and climbing ever higher, I can tell he’s on the verge of standing up from his chair to saw that cello in half with the energy and beauty they’re crafting together.
And, as beautiful as all of the sonatas and concertos that he’s played and will play again are, I’m not sure he’s ever found or felt the sort of raw and unrefined majesty that resulted from this most unusual grouping.
The Goat Rodeo Sessions are a wonder to behold, a listening experience unlike any I can remember, with shades from each of the represented genres blending to create an undefinable one, but one that is, after all, “just Music.”
Here’s hoping for more such Sessions in the future.