Gosh, eight months since the last blog. That really is bad and I intend to put it right! I have a few things I’d like to write about and am keen to return to regular entries to this blog as many of you have said you enjoy reading them and have politely wondered what the hell happened to it!
Of course, it has been quite the year. My last entry was about my baby being born and let’s face it that is the headline news from 2023. Incidentally, my other half Nicol has been far better at blogging than I have! She has a rather splendid blog about parent wins and fails as we navigate being new parents and the complications of travelling with them. It’s an entertaining, informative and honest read as you’d expect if you know anything about my wonderful lady. Check out her blog here: https://bobbinabout.blogspot.com/
As for me, it’s been a good year work-wise. Gigs solo, with UFQ, with Brooks and with the legendary Alistair Anderson have all been pretty damn great and I am enjoying my new work balance with slightly less touring, more teaching at home and the bonus of plenty of session work which I can also do from here. I always wanted to be at home more once I had a baby – it’s such a hard thing as a musician to know what to do for the best as touring and performing is such an important part of who we are as people quite apart from being our main income source usually! But I had always decided I would not be touring like I used to doing 250 gigs a year all over the world with regular month long trips to other countries. I loved that life, and I certainly miss parts of it but being at home with my family is simply more essential for me. So the new way is plenty of gigs all over the UK, and still the odd trip abroad (in fact a particularly exciting one awaits in the new year…) but based here in Shrewsbury doing my teaching, session work and Patreon and doting on my amazing daughter.
But perhaps the main thing I wanted to write about here is seeing Nickel Creek at long last. It’s difficult to put into words how much this band changed my life as a teenager. I had taken up banjo and then discovered the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and through that discovered incredible artists like Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and bluegrass music in general. Having been obsessed with Irish music, Britpop, Paul Simon and 60s pop (an obvious combination for a child of the 90s in Stafford…), my eyes were suddenly opened to this wonderful genre of music.
In those days, there was a website called CD Now which used to throw up excellent recommendations for new music based on similar artists. Amazon and Spotify (more on them in another blog…) do similar now but I found nobody did it quite as well as CD Now. Anyway, unlike now music wasn’t just free to listen to wherever you liked on the internet (ah turns out I might touch on Spotify in this blog entry…) so it was a case of a 30-second sample of a song at best. So I would regularly ‘take a punt’ on an album not knowing what lay therein. I bought a few albums based on recommendations which I either liked or discarded and one or two that I really got into…then along came Nickel Creek.
I bought their self-titled debut album and my world shook. I was initially excited by the clawhammer banjo opening to the first track ‘Ode To A Butterfly’. Then that intro came to a pause and Chris Thile’s mandolin kicked off this extraordinary tune. Guitar, fiddle and mandolin combined for a few minutes of absolute instrumental heaven varying between dizzying virtuosity and sheer melodic beauty. Then came the songs…’Lighthouse’s Tale’, ‘Out Of The Woods’, ‘When You Come Back Down’ and the childlike yet somehow funky as hell ‘The Fox’. I knew I loved folk tunes, I knew I loved pop songs and as of just before I got this album I knew I loved bluegrass. But nothing could have prepared me for this! It was the whole package – all the qualities of catchy, anthemic pop songs but with mind blowing instrumental virtuosity. This album changed my life; one week later I went to HMV and bought the follow up ‘This Side’. It was definitely different with more adventurous arrangements, discordant strings and some studio effects but it was very much the band I’d fallen in love with and plenty more favourite tracks to add to my collection. I was, to put it mildly, hooked. This band changed my whole outlook on music making and music listening.
So how did it take til 2023 to see them play?! Well, by the time I’d got into them first time around their UK tours had been and gone and then the band split after the less consistent ‘Why Should The Fire Die’. It was a long time til they reformed with 2014’s excellent ‘A Dotted Line’. And they did come to the UK…I was in New Zealand. That was it until 2023 when a show was arranged in London in late January at a, for them, tiny venue. I was online frantically clicking for tickets the second they went on sale and was overjoyed to book them. I couldn’t wait…my daughter of course had other ideas. Her unexpected arrival in early January meant once again seeing Nickel Creek was off. I cancelled going to three gigs because of Heidi’s arrival and generally didn’t mind at all…but that one really hurt!!!
Thankfully, Towersey festival came to the rescue booking my band Urban Folk Quartet and crucially NICKEL CREEK!! The decision was made there and then that I wasn’t going anywhere else that weekend and finally I saw my heroes. I didn’t expect anything other than exemplary playing knowing the musicians involved but I was so happy that they played so much material from the albums I adored. I sobbed during Lighthouse’s Tale. Then at the close of their set I went to find my other half Nicol who had very decently told me to go right to the front and be a proper fan while she took care of our daughter at the back of the marquee. I found her, threw my arms round her and cried genuine heartsobs. It was so emotional to finally see the band who rocked my world all those years ago. Music is powerful stuff!