Nickel Creek with Fiona Apple at the Bank of America Pavilion on August 17

A review of Nickel Creek with Fiona Apple at the Bank of America Pavilion on August 17, 2007

, Staff Writer

Largo must be one amazing place. Through Jon Brion’s Friday night residencies, the Los Angeles club has become the center of a musical and comedic community as well as the home for regular performances by Brion, Aimee Mann, Elliot Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Larry David, Glen Phillips, and many more artists. It is also where Nickel Creek and Fiona Apple occasionally share the stage, planting the seeds for Friday night’s show at the always beautiful Bank of America Pavilion.

The tour, which sports the tongue-in-cheek title “The Farwell (For Now) Tour,” is the last for bluegrass favorites Nickel Creek, and the band decided to bring Apple along for a set featuring the songs of both artists as well as “anything from pop standards to country classics to modern rock covers,” according to the band’s website. It promised an arena sized expansion of the intimate Largo collaborations.

Nickel Creek took stage first and began with a short instrumental piece before playing “The Fox.” Sarah Watkins provided the rhythm on her fiddle with percussive stabs while Chris Thile displayed his prodigious mandolin skills. The pair had the bluegrass down cold, with bass player Mark Schatz, a Lexington native, keeping everyone firmly rooted.

Guitarist Sean Watkins contributed more of a straightforward pop element to the band’s set, singing lead on “This Side” and bringing the show to an early high point. That momentum was quickly deflated by the waltz “Jealous of the Moon,” but the crowd was patient and was ultimately rewarded by an up-tempo instrumental, including an unexpected slap bass break from hometown boy Schatz.

What was progressing along as a nice little show with a calmly seated audience became an entirely different animal as Fiona Apple took the stage, bringing with her the presence of a true star. Nickel Creek, now taking the role of Apple’s backing band, quickly kicked into the title track of Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, and the rest of the night would not be the same.

Apple is visually arresting. Over the delicate rhythms of “Machine” she swayed, jangled, and flailed her arms like a woman possessed. Her voice is commanding and versatile, changing from husky growl to childish playfulness instantaneously. During Gillian Welch’s “I’m Gonna Sing that Rock and Roll” Apple danced a little hoedown, bringing more and more of the crowd out of their seats.

As focused and composed as she was when singing, Apple was equally as scattered and nervous when addressing the audience. During her introduction to Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” Apple rambled on before saying, “This is a song I love to sing. We’re gonna play it now so I’ll stop babbling and start singing.” What she sang, a pained ballad of haunting loneliness accompanied only by Sean Watkins’ acoustic guitar, was by itself worth the price of admission.

Fiona and company tore through her song “Limp,” with its fierce breakdown and Thile’s mandolin beatbox. Apple’s searing “A Mistake” proved her to be badder than cheater Amy Winehouse and anti-cheater Carrie Underwood, and the song was brought to another level by four-part harmonies and Sara Watkins’ searing fiddle solo.

A heartwarming moment occurred when Apple asked the crowd to thank her former third grade teacher, who was in attendance and hadn’t seen the singer in years. The reunion at the front of the stage was met with a standing ovation, and a visibly overjoyed Apple jumped around like she was a third grader all over again. Apple then introduced Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” by saying, “Here’s a song that has nothing to do with that.” The cover was strong, pushed over the edge by Sean Watkins’ amazing syncopated guitar solo.

Apple left the stage, leaving Nickel Creek to themselves to play headliner for another set. The audience responded well to songs like “When in Rome,” “Somebody More Like You,” and “House Carpenter,” but knowing that Apple was returning loomed over the band’s performance, the anticipation creating some degree of boredom.

“Helena” erased all that, as the song’s pop sensibility and huge crescendo were head and shoulders above the band’s other material. After a very pretty version of “Out of the Woods” and an impromptu tap dance from Schatz, Apple returned to the stage for “Parting Gift.”

Thile then went on an extended rant about the various topics of bluegrass songs, ending with the tease, “One thing I think all the songs have in common is a desire for redemption,” and indicating that the next tune was a bluegrass classic. That song turned out to be a surprisingly effective bluegrass treatment of Apple’s breakthrough hit “Criminal.”

After Extraordinary Machine’s “Oh Well,” the band launched into a devastating version of Apple’s hit “As Fast As You Can.” Sean Watkins broke a string from his furious strumming, and Apple twitched around the stage like Samara from The Ring, freaking out to the stop and start rhythms which transposed perfectly to Thile’s mandolin. Apple and company, looking spent, left the stage to a thunderous standing ovation.

The group returned and huddled around a single microphone for a playful, unplugged version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “When I Get Low, I Get High,” as well as a beautiful female duet of “Tonight You Belong to Me,” ending the night, and perhaps Nickel Creek’s touring career, on a sweet, old-fashioned note. The band’s performance was strong and varied, but it was their inspired choice to pair up with Apple that brought the show to the next level. If there are nights like this all the time at Largo, sorry Boston, but I’m moving to LA.

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