Review by Bokonon
Photographs by Rudy Lu
Just a mandolin. That’s right, just a mandolin. OK, good looks, great voice, superb sense of humor and a rumpled brown suit, but really, Chris Thile commanded the Massry Center with just a mandolin.
The 32-year-old is no slouch. He’s been seen in the area in combinations such as Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, Goat Rodeo, the Thile/Daves duo and even as a sparring partner for Brad Mehldau. But at the Massry it was simply man vs. eight strings.
Holy shit. Man won. On a machine that’s rarely considered a solo instrument.
Thile’s latest disc is not bluegrass, but Bach, a killer take on the Sonata No. 1 in G Minor and the Partita No. 1 in B Minor. The record is enough to make most mandolinists want to cry, gnash their teeth and burn their box, not necessarily in that order. But onstage, the Bach inventions took an even wider dimension. This was as live as it gets, with Thile’s fingers never leaving his hands.
Did I say holy shit?
The Bach alone would have made for a remarkable evening, but Thile wouldn’t settle for that.
After the opening Bach salvo, he launched into the evening’s first brace of “stuff,” which veered from the Louvin Brothers’ “Broadminded” to a free jazz freak-out suggesting the artist was being electrocuted, before landing back at the bluegrass standard “Rabbit in a Log.” The improv excursion alone was mind-bending.
Throughout the evening, Thile interspersed classical with crazy, bouncing, say, the alt.rock angst of Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can” against the Gm Sonata, whose movements provided a sort of spine for the program. Throughout, Thile played emcee, pulling off a full-on stand-up routine, which, again, was worth the trip on its own merit.
The epic Bm Partita was the belly of the set. “We’ll have to hunker down,” Thile said, before diving in. One could say he was lost in the music, and mean it in the most gracious way. But it’s just not true. Thile’s particular genius is that he always knows where he is. His musical mind is just scary, and there is no synaptic gap between his head and hands. He thinks it, it happens.
I’ve seen lots of shows, kids. LOTS of shows. Chris Thile at the Massry was one of the best performances I have ever seen; and the beautiful space only made it better.
“I really like playing music for this roomful of people,” Thile beamed.
He finished the night in the only appropriate way, countering the Bach with more comedy — a handwrought ditty called “Song on the Mandolin,” for which he needed, just a mandolin.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Before a nearly sold-out and enthusiastic audience, the Punch Brothers’ mandolin virtuoso deftly swung between styles and genres, mixing the four parts of Bach’s ‘Sonata No. 1 in G Minor’ in with snatches of old traditional bluegrass material, his own originals and some well-placed covers. He also performed Bach’s ‘Partita No. 1 in B Minor’ in its entirety mid-set as the show’s centerpiece. Both these Bach pieces make up Thile’s latest solo recording, and find him once again breaking new ground on his instrument. Performing these works on mandolin, instead of the much louder violin as was originally intended by Bach, has allowed Thile to find new nuances within these often complicated works. Perhaps most impressive, juxtaposing these performances with Thile’s usual material on this night showed the heavy influence that classical music has been having on Thile all this time.
CHRIS THILE SET LIST
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Adagio (Bach)
Broadminded (the Louvin Brothers)
The Blind Leaving the Blind (excerpt)
Have a Feast Here Tonight (Rabbit in the Log) (Bill Monroe)
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Allegro (Bach)
Fast as You Can (Fiona Apple)
Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel
Partita No. 1 in B minor (Bach)
If You’re Gonna Leave Me (Set Me Up with One of Your Friends)
Daughter of Eve
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Siciliana (Bach)
Here and Heaven
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Presto (Bach)
Song On the Mandolin