Thursday, October 27, 2005

Opening acts are like ethnic appetizers

Saw The Ditty Bops last night opening for Nickel Creek.

And while the Bops don't rule the Vic with the rapture that is music (more below), they were an act that's tough to follow: Amanda and Abby are carried onstage like mannikins, "activated" by a stiltwalker's confetti. Part vaudeville, part skiffle, part bluegrass, with juggling, pantomime, and ironic humor, they were a lot of fun. In some ways, their album is sort of just the soundtrack to their performances -- see them live if you can. You've probably heard them in the background of Grey's Anatomy, they've been used there more than once, and their song Ooh la la is a bluegrass-rocker that will disappoint nobody that's gotten some airplay at XRT in Chicago.

I've had a really good track record for finding great opening acts for music shows. I discovered Nickel Creek opening for Lyle Lovett about five years ago, where they blew the roof off the Chicago Theater. Lovett's finely-crafted country-swing-pop seemed sterile after that. The next time I saw Nickel Creek, Glen Phillips opened for them. In past years, I've been lucky enough to see the Neville Brothers open for Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Clegg open for Tracy Chapman (boy was that a mismatch), and Katie Todd open for Pat MacDonald (who actually never showed up that night at the coffeehouse).

So I've got this theory: opening acts at a concert are the appetizers at ethnic restaurants, or bar-n-grills: the satay, spring rolls, beef negimaki, nachos, etc. have got more flavor, and more excitement than the pad thai, kung pao chicken, beef teriyaki or enchiladas suizas that follow. The difference? They don't break the budget, they're a gimme at the concert you're going to. So show up early, don't talk through the openers, you may catch something cool.

Oh yeah, I promised a review of Nickel Creek. As usual, they smoked. Chris Thile's mandolin playing is superhuman (he so tries to look cool, but playing a teeny weeny guitar-like instrument still looks geeky, sorry). Riffs that flow effortlessly with hands that really seemed to blur. The vocal combinations with Sarah Watkins and Sean Watkins meet and exceed the bar set by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and their instrumental jams blow past the Grateful Dead's telepathic synchronicity.

Compared to past shows, Sean Watkins guitar and songwriting was not overshadowed by Chris' grandstanding. This Side and Somebody More Like You are great pop songs that are sometimes hidden behind the hits such as Smoothie Song.

Part of the fun of a NC show is what cool songs they'll cover. Past shows have included Taxman and a frenetic version of Subterranean Homesick Blues. This time, we were treated to a beautiful and faithful version of The Band's Cripple Creek, and a smoking, ironic interpretation of Britney Spears Toxic of all things.

I'll go see them every time I can -- an act not to be missed. For people who've been playing together for 2/3rds of their lives -- as big a fraction as the Rolling Stones in their scant 25 years of life -- there's nothing old or tired here. This is the future of music.

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