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Nickel Creek is back with music reflecting newfound maturity, influences



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Nickel Creek; with the Secret Sisters, 8 p.m. May 9, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine. Sold out. (800) 514-3849;

Nickel Creek is celebrating its 25th anniversary, a milestone that seems out of whack with the band member’s ages. But that anniversary arrives early when you start performing together as children and manage to forge a productive adult relationship.

Chris Thile, 33, and siblings Sara, 32, and Sean Watkins, 37, took an amiable hiatus from Nickel Creek nearly seven years ago to pursue other musical interests, but they were never far from their roots or their long friendship. Now they’ve reunited for a silver-anniversary tour and a new album “A Dotted Line.”

“We’re having a great time rediscovering some of the old material and trying to pay tribute to these recorded versions as much as possible,” Sara Watkins says in a phone call from Charlottesville, Va., where she had a rare day off between tour dates. “It’s been fun to play these songs from our current perspective instead of putting on a costume and remembering who we were at 17 or 18.”

Nickel Creek’s progressive bluegrass, a mix of fiddles, mandolins and rural harmonies, takes on a more daring shade with the new songs on “A Dotted Line,” which are filled with spiraling harmonies and technically challenging acoustic music. Songs range from Sara Watkins roots rocker “Destination” to the lonely ballad “Christmas Eve” to a cover of Mother Mother’s spunky “Hayloft.” That last entry Watkins admits is “a little bit more adventurous than normal for us.”

Because the trio began performing at such an early age it was only natural that they would eventually want to explore new musical interests. Their platinum-selling self-titled debut in 2000 was produced by bluegrass icon Alison Krauss. The 2002 follow-up “This Side” won a Grammy but by the time 2005’s “Why Should the Fire Die?” was released band members was “just really tired” says Watkins.

“If you’re not careful, the band can take over your life to the point where you can’t do anything else, musically or otherwise,” Watkins notes. “It got to the point where we were on the verge of becoming resentful that our only outlet was this band and this particular musicianship. We were lucky to be on the same page about taking a break.”

Each of them forged their own path, and it was valued time well used.

Thile formed the Punch Brothers, toured in a duo with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, composed and performed a classical mandolin concerto and teamed with bassist Edgar Meyer, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fiddler Stuart Duncan for “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” which won the Grammy for best folk album last year. He also won a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship.

Guitarist Sean Watkins founded the groups Fiction Family and, with his sister, Works Progress Administration. Sara Watkins recorded several solo albums, including one produced by John Paul Jones (formerly of Led Zeppelin), and played violin with Jackson Browne, Jerry Douglas, the Decemberists and others. The siblings also host the Watkins Family Hour, a musical-comedy revue at West Hollywood’s Largo.

The first performance of the reunion tour in Birmingham, Ala., was “kind of surreal and weird,” says Watkins with a laugh. But on the other hand it felt like simply the next show, like they never took a break.

“Walking out on stage that night felt very familiar,” Watkins explains. “But inwardly we all knew we were very different musicians now. It was a strange combination of the familiar and the new.

“And it’s been so great to come back together and discover each other’s new strengths and influences. The musicianship has changed and evolved, as it should over time. I think I can speak for all three of us and say it feels really good to be back together on stage.”

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