In the world of Chris Thile, I’m a relative newcomer. I had no idea who he was until around four months ago, the point in time that I took up learning the mandolin, but I was quick to discover that he is one of the premier players of that instrument. Beginning to take lessons when he was 5 years old, he won the National Mandolin Championship held at the Walnut Valley Festival by the age of 12, and released his first solo album that same year. He was part of the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and has played with big names such as Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Mike Marshall, and the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He won the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” in 2012, given out to those who have been extraordinarily original in their creativity, which awarded him $500,000 to help him continue his pursuits. It is no surprise then to hear him take on a new challenge, releasing an album in August of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, but performed on mandolin. So when I found out that he would be playing in my neck of the woods, I knew this was a performance not to be missed.
The concert was held at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Md., not too far from Washington D.C. For those that have not been there, it is an absolutely gorgeous venue with amazing acoustics. This was evident as Chris Thile walked on stage and the roar of applause resounded throughout the room. As the applause died down he began with the Adagio from the G Minor Sonata, and then went into “Broadminded” by the Louvin Brothers before flowing into an excerpt of his own work with Punch Brothers. The night would be filled with seamless segue from one style of music to another, not to mention Thile’s charming sense of humor.
“That last one was an excerpt from the song ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’, which would be challenging Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ if it had a sexier title…and perhaps some nudity. Not from me.”
At this point in the set, Thile let us in on the format for the rest of the evening, referencing an invisible roadmap to his left. We started out with a Bach piece, then there was a little block of “stuff” as he liked to call everything not-Bach, then we’d be treated to another section of Bach, which he 3-dimensionally pictured with his hands as a huge block in the middle of the performance. “This one takes up some room, so we’ll have to hunker down,” he said to the amusement of the crowd. “So, folks are ready for the 30th Day of Bachtoberfest!” he happily exclaimed, and we kicked off into another volley of tunes ranging from Thile, to Bach, to a cover of Fiona Apple. What amazed me about his performance, which many of you that are familiar with him surely already know about, is not just his amazing mandolin playing (and it is amazing), but his fantastic voice. During his song “Stay Away,” which turned the room eerily quiet to capture every last note that was softly played, Chris’ voice carried the tune up and away – thick, rich, and versatile – which I had yet to experience due to my limited time following him.
More “stuff” ensued before the mammoth B Minor Partita would be played, for which we’d all have to “hunker down.” One piece of stuff was prefaced by asking for a show of hands as to who in the room had ever done a solo performance before. Surprisingly, a third of the hands in the auditorium went up. Still, most, Thile pointed out, might not be aware of the newly passed mandate by the International Solo Performers Guild who are located in an undisclosed location in the Swiss Alps. “A solo set must contain no less than one, but certainly no more than three, tunes about the Civil War,” he matter of factly told us before taking off into “Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel.” He pointed out that the original writers during the American Civil War might have made a slight error, given that Richmond is a town and not a road, “but they were dealing with a lot, so let’s say we give ‘em this one.”
Then it came time to get down to business. The B Minor Partita, in all its eight-part glory, was to be our next serving. He noted that this was actually a dance movement and that should “any of you know the steps … there’s a fair amount of room,” as he looked around the large empty stage. It must be a bit daunting to him, coming out to do a solo performance on a stage that looks to be built to support a large orchestra. Yet he managed to captivate us all with that lengthy performance of Bach, particularly during the double of the Corrente movement, his hands blurring up and down the fretboard for what seemed like minutes without a single mistake. At the end of that piece there was a standing ovation, which I honestly believe my girlfriend initiated – springing to her feet as soon as the last note sounded. Everyone quickly joined her and the cheers just went on and on.
I suppose that after all of these classical pieces it was time to lighten up the mood a bit. Chris decided to pull out of one his own, making us all laugh with the rather pop-driven tune, “If You’re Gonna Leave Me (Set Me Up With One Of Your Friends).” I take it you can figure that one out on your own. Then, before proceeding, he pointed out that some people in the audience had been throwing up the heavy metal horns (which he called the “rock”) during his performance. I had seen quite a variety of attires for tonight’s show; some people were in suit and ties, while others were wearing rock n’ roll band T-shirts with chains hanging out of their pockets. He wanted to throw the horns up himself, he said, because you never receive the horns and not return it. However, he was worried that people who hadn’t thrown the horns would think he was throwing it to them. Therefore, he decided to designate this time during the set for everyone in the audience to put up the horns at the same time, keeping us all safe from confusion.
The next song required some backstory, which I won’t ruin for future concert goers. I can tell you, however, that it involved Wikipedia, a sword of fire envisioned by George Lucas, and venomous cherubim. As Thile noted, “There were some things that my youth pastor glossed over,” before playing his song “Daughter of Eve.” His playing has a way of going from a ferocious barrage of picking to an utterly quiet, solitary note in the blink of an eye. We were once again treated to some Bach, this time being Siciliana, the third movement of the G Minor Sonata. From there, it went straight into the song “Here And Heaven” from the Goat Rodeo Sessions, once again showcasing Chris’ brilliant vocals. He ended with the G Minor Sonata’s fourth movement, Presto, before taking a bow and walking off the stage to a deafening applause.
As anyone that has ever been to a concert knows, never pick up your stuff and leave when the band exits the stage. Sometimes they won’t come back, but usually there’s at least one encore, as was the case here. Someone yelled above the cheers, requesting “Big Sam Thompson” off of Thile’s 2001 solo release Not All Who Wander Are Lost. Chris looked out and replied, “Oh, don’t you worry, I’ve already got something pegged down for this. You don’t know how much it means to me to have you come out and listen to THIS MUCH MANDOLIN!” In the same humorous vein of “If You’re Gonna Leave Me…” we were treated to a song that is likely titled, “On The Mandolin,” though I don’t believe it’s been released on any album yet. With a chorus that went something like, “Sometimes I play too many notes, but there ain’t too many folks who can play too many notes…on the mandolin!” it was the perfect song to end a night of pop, bluegrass, and Bach.
Unfortunately, I was neither able to photograph the event nor meet Chris Thile. The former was understandable, as the performance was such a quiet affair at times that any shutter sound whatsoever would have disrupted those around me. I’m not sure if the latter would have been possible or not, and being unfamiliar with the venue I decided to take my girlfriend and myself home with the smiles that had been put on our faces already. During the performance I heard people describe him as “animated,” “abstract” and that he had “rockstar flair”. All of these I agree with. The way he gets caught up in the music, it can sometimes look like he’s possessed, but all of it is highly entertaining. He teases the audience, but times both his playing and his stories like a comedian, making the punchline hit at just the right moment. What’s more is that he exudes perfect musical performances. There appears to be no barrier between the music inside and that which greets us. While I’m sure Thile knows his faults and scrutinizes himself for them, none are apparent to the audience. Everyone might not leave knowing exactly what they experienced, but everyone will know one thing: that was a great show.