What Makes a Great Concert? And How Nickel Creek and The Secret Sisters Nailed It

Two things are true about me: I love live music, and I hate crowds. As you can imagine, this causes some conflict.

I chuckle at every introvert joke. I relate to every introvert image on Pinterest. Yet, as much as I get anxious prior to and exhausted after a night out, I will do it to hear music played in real time. When I do decide to leave my fortress (couch) of solitude, I can only hope I will be rewarded with a great time.

I keep a little running list of my top five shows, and it has not been reorganized in a long time. Last Thursday night, my husband and I drove four hours to Asheville, NC, to fulfill a dream I have had for almost 15 years – to see my beloved Nickel Creek perform live, with The Secret Sisters opening. (And, well, also to eat at one of our favorite places – what up, Early Girl Eatery!) This performance RUSHED to the top, long replacing a 2010 Arcade Fire show. As much as I think about my list, I never really considered the criteria I judge things on. This blog is for considering the criteria I judge things on. So here we go.

nickel creek ticket

These are the components I judge any and every show on, the components I always talk about even if subconsciously I never realized all of these have to come together to make a great experience. The opener, the crafting of the setlist, the musicianship, the band’s energy, and the crowd all contribute to the experience, and any one of them can RUIN the whole night for me. And this was, again, near-perfect. (“Jealous of the Moon” on the setlist would have closed the near-circle, but alas, life isn’t perfect.)

Let me back up and start with The Secret Sisters, though. I have sat through a lot of opening acts in my life. I know it must be no easy job. You’re usually unknown, greener than the opener, and there’s a good possibility no one will even show up for you, and those who do might not even care. But I’ve seen opening acts insult the crowd, be so high they couldn’t remember their own songs (name REDACTED), and also just be generally terrible and sadly lucky to have the spot.

The Secret Sisters made me forget, for their entire set, that I was there to see anyone else. And again, I was there to see one of my favorite all-time bands. I hadn’t heard a note of their music before that night. They rocked the theater with bluesy up-tempo songs, slowed it down to beautiful melodies, were retro but genuine, and I converted within seconds of the first song from “Okay, show me what you got” to “WHOA! THESE GIRLS GOT IT!”

In the short time between their set and Nickel Creek’s, I legitimately was like, “Um, can they come back and play more.” I WASN’T EVEN THINKING ABOUT NICKEL CREEK. These girls and their band (guitarist and suitcase percussion – so sorry I don’t know their names!) brought it their entire set, were charming and funny. Favorite opener. Of. All. Time. Please check them out.

The Secret Sisters said they were so excited to open for Nickel Creek because after rebelling against their bluegrass loving family as teenagers, Nickel Creek made it cool again to like bluegrass.

I could entirely relate. I’ve written before about how music has often been a part of my identity, and how I find myself returning to Americana/bluegrass/country/etc. when I need to return to myself. Nickel Creek released their first major label album in 2000, and that is when I first heard of them. In 2000, I was a freshman in high school. I was really into The Ramones. I was trying hard to be into a lot of other punk bands. I was trying not to let anyone ever know I had ever liked anything remotely like country music or bluegrass. (By the way, no one CARES as much as you think they do about your musical preferences. But, I was a nerd, and I wanted my music preferences to be LEGIT.)

So, anyway, Nickel Creek came along. They were only a few years older than me. And they were just really cool. Oh, and they played a fiddle, a mandolin, and an acoustic guitar. Still. Cool. They were too good to ever be embarrassed about.

When they went on hiatus in 2007, I was pretty devastated that I had missed my chance to see them live. When I snagged tickets for this year’s tour, I cried. I was so excited to finally have this experience. They did not disappoint because, as much as I enjoyed The Secret Sisters set, Nickel Creek stole the show right back.

nickel creek live

Nickel Creek, Asheville, 2014

They mixed together their catalog of old and new songs perfectly, including a showcase of their ridiculous talent with instrumentals interspersed throughout the set. Watching Nickel Creek felt, to me, like watching pure masters of their craft. Truly great musicians are some of the most interesting to watch because their proficiency with their instruments comes from years of honing their craft. However, as fascinating as great musicians are to watch, they aren’t always fun. A lot of the more fun shows aren’t nearly as well-played. This night? I got amazing musicianship AND fun. Their energy was contagious from the beginning.

I also felt lucky to be part of such a fantastic crowd that night at the Thomas Wolfe Theater. This crowd was so into the music and so excited, but also courteous. A bad crowd can RUIN an otherwise great night.

I still hold a grudge against the entire city of Charlottesville for a crowd talking through an acoustic show a few years back. I know you’re not all terrible, C-ville. I have seen other concerts there where the crowd was better. But I will still never forgive you.

As much as I adore The Avett Brothers, I still cannot listen to “Murder in the City” because at a Charlotte show, a drunk guy behind me, the entire show, talked about wanting them to play it, kept singing its lyrics during other songs, then talked through it when they finally played the song he’d been screaming for, and at one night spilled his beer on me. He also sang “I am a bleeding time machine” during Laundry Room. I mean. What.

Liz Lemon Joker

Do you want me to go on my concert etiquette rant? It’s endless. You’ll beg for death!

But my full rant on concert etiquette can wait for another day. The summary? Dance and scream and get into it, but don’t touch people inappropriately, don’t hit people, apologize if your flailing accidentally gets someone, DON’T TALK, and for God’s sake, if you are on the floor, don’t get there late and the push to the front, you JERKS. In general, SHOW UP ON TIME. We all paid the same amount to see this show. You aren’t a special snowflake. This isn’t about YOU.

Wow, that was a digression, but I feel better.

Long story short, regarding the Asheville crowd last week – they weren’t dicks, and that was awesome. The entire room was up and dancing for “The Fox,” and nothing has ever been more fun.

Finally, though this criteria contributes to how a concert goes, there is also just the actual feeling a concert gives you. Something intangible happens to your spirit while the music is playing that never leaves you. When the setlist starts to fade from your mind, when disappointments no longer matter, and all your memory holds is the feeling of a great night, that’s what makes concerts WORTH leaving the house for. I smiled the entire night for Nickel Creek. A week on, I can just remember being HAPPY. And so there it is, my favorite concert of all time (for now!)

Maybe you are curious? My current top five:

  1. Nickel Creek w/The Secret Sisters (Asheville, NC), 2014
  2. Arcade Fire w/Spoon (Columbia, MD), 2010
  3. Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings (Roanoke, VA), 2011
  4. The Avett Brothers w/The David Wax Museum (Blacksburg, VA), 2011
  5. The Decemberists w/Baltimore Orchestra (Columbia, MD), 2007

Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.