When Chris Thile was told he had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (that includes a hefty $500, order 000 grant with that “genius” title) , viagra he hid under the closest sink he could find. When asked what he was going to do with the grant money he replied, “There’s this mandolin that I really, really want…and now I think, maybe now, I can have it,” with the same sheepish grin found on children in toy stores.
While you may recognize Thile from Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, the freakishly talented mandolinist is as much a classic composer as he is a bluegrass staple. He’s toured and collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma and won a Grammy while in his teens (and has earned two more since). Thile is a man on fire, which is only appropriate because he was asked to contribute a track to one of The Hunger Games soundtracks. Since 2008, Thile has been collaborating with famed bassist Edgar Meyer and last week the duo made their second appearance at Boston’s Celebrity Series in support of their second album Bass & Mandolin that was released this year.
Walking into Sanders Theater, I was greeted with a coffee bar and a pastry spread. After some brief scanning of the room I determined that I was in fact, one of the far and few patrons under the age of 30. With a program in hand, I was guided to my seat in the hall; the line between gig and performance was clearly drawn. Thile notes on concert etiquette that it is the audience that is more reserved and stiff. He contends that the musicians at work are just as impassioned as any rock star. He says it’s ok to holler a “Yes!” at the climax of a particularly dense bridge of a piece despite the fact that you’re in a “formal” setting. To my pleasant surprise, the audience at Sanders is on board with that line of logic.
The evening was split up into two sets with a brief intermission and featured tracks from both of the duos releases as well as a selection from Thile’s Bach solo album. Considering my last sighting of Thile was him rabidly plucking away and shouting a cover of Radiohead’s “2+2=5” – hearing him play a Bach Sonata was awe-inspiring. Teamed up with Meyer, the two together are breaking down those aforementioned barriers between classical audiences and musicians. Between the silly stage banter, Thile’s exaggerated cartoon expressions, or the fact that we as an audience named a song together that night – I felt right at home.
Meyer and Thile are impossibly swift and otherworldly when it comes to their compositions. Their work is graceful, precise, and genre-bending straddling classical, folk, bluegrass, jazz and swing.
A dizzying challenge that I’ve never been happier to take on. Meyer, while moderately more reserved than Thile, stomped and danced with his double bass was an unbeatable anchor with every rhythm. Meanwhile Thile twisted and jerked while his nimble fingers flit with lighting speed. Stand out tracks of the night included “Ham & Cheese,” “The Farmer and the Duck,” and “Monkey Actually.”
Towards the end of the evening the audience was gifted with a new track, the trick is this one is new every night on this tour. While loosely similar, each night the duo has been performing a mostly improvised track and letting the audience join their process in naming it upon closing. After thoughtful considerations including “Roughly 5 ½ Minutes of Improvised Music”, “String Cheese”, and “Shoestring Potatoes” the track was dubbed “Wicked Pissah.” Kudos, Boston.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to high-five the two on my way out.