“Where It’s At,” the Beck hit about “two turntables and a microphone,” isn’t exactly a song you’d expect to be covered by a band comprised of a mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. But Nickel Creek has never exactly played by the rules — the trio (expanded to a quartet again for this tour) gave the song the kind of lighthearted reading fans have come to expect from a band that consistently bucks expectations.
Though Nickel Creek’s Avalon show wasn’t as satisfying, front-to-back, as its extraordinary performance last year at the Wiltern, that was more a fault of an unevenly paced setlist than any technical or musical issues. Fast, bluegrass-tinged instrumentals were always followed by heartbreaking laments, giving the evening a stop-start feel inconsistent with the group’s focused, tireless playing.
New originals from a yet-to-be-recorded follow-up to 2002’s “This Side” (Sugarhill) continued Nickel Creek’s formula of pop harmonies, heated lyrics and mind-bending instrumental segments, spearheaded this night by mandolinist Chris Thile, who pounces around the stage through both rapid-fire solos and carefully subtle rhythmic interludes.
Much more subdued was opener Mindy Smith, currently the discerning country listener’s maverick of choice. She has a warm, amateurish presence onstage, talking to the audience as she tunes. Her songs — played simply on acoustic guitar with perfectly light mandolin accompaniment — are steeped in everything from blues to be-bop; often, Smith’s rich voice hints of sirens from Bessie Smith to Norah Jones. Her single “Come to Jesus” (from this year’s Vanguard debut, “One Moment More”), which closed the set, was actually among the weaker moments in a set full of disarmingly passionate songs.