It was bright and clear but bone chillingly cold during the latter half of the weekend. The idea of standing outside among that freeze for any length of time, let alone more than an hour, seems an act of recklessness; maybe it is but the opportunity to sit and experience the most easy going of greatness is but like a sudden burst of yesterday’s wind: It’s extreme but comes and goes so quickly. That was what the solo set, and in general, the experience of an afternoon with Chris Thile, was like.
A full house descended upon Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2 and after opening tabs and soaking up background tunes spanning the 1920s and 1930s, Thile casually walks up to the single microphone provided for him as the stage lighting shifts from a soft red to one singular white spotlight and the set kicks off with vocal assertion, courtesy of Punch Brothers tune, “My Oh My.” Right the first utterances of precise falsetto (Wrapped in invisible wire / Something beautiful’s gonna come), there was no doubt this show was going to be intense. Not a soul dared breathe loudly, cough, fiddle with plastic or the like, once the music began. Yet think not of the room as a closeted group of stereotypical stuffy concert goers. No, Thile isn’t about that and neither are his fans, as was easily seen by the laughs that immediately ensued following his opening when Thile dove into beautifully delivered comedy disguised as everyday dialogue, dressed with the thinnest layer of pure, esoteric, music nerd.
“I turned on my tuner reflexively. Tune? To what? And you know, the “A” of today isn’t what it was back then. If anyone with perfect 440 pitch went back in time and listened to music, they’d say ‘Ahhh!’.” – Chris Thile
Variety continued as Thile jumped from the ship of Punch Brothers to that of a track from The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks, 2011) – his shared accomplishment with Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Stuart Duncan. There is no exactness to describing these instrumental performances, except to say the subtleties of everything from Thile’s facial expressions, ease of dexterity, and seemingly involuntary movement, will be processed differently when witnessed in person, regardless of how much one has seen previously and in how high of a definition it was watched. Those that didn’t recognize the track by name got a wonderful backstory – something directly correlated to the Lower East Side at that – about the fact that the Attaboy bar on Eldridge Street, actually used to be the Milk & Honey bar. Throwing in a quick quip about having possibly ruined his brain many a time in the bar’s previous life (“Or perhaps it’s just pickled?”), talk of a third hat of Thile’s emerges (his self-admitted “first new job since he was seven”), by way of a song performed recently on A Prairie Home Companion.
The afternoon carried on like this – Thile gently guiding the show like he was turning the sides of a colorful, musical, Rubik’s Cube – never once letting the air between himself and the very close audience settle on any one aspect of what he had to and was capable of offering. Traveling from an upbeat and comedic song to the introduction of, and preparation for, the intermittent toss in of Bach over a five movement D minor Partita for violin, a slew of requests and covers flew in like another unexpected gust of wind, bringing with it shouts from the audience that reveal just how stylistically vast and literally lengthy Thile’s career catalog truly is. One shout of course, momentarily at least, stood above the rest.
“We all had to wonder, ‘Where’s that guy [who will request Free bird]?’ How will we know if we’re alive?! Has the contract between audience and artist been broken?!”
Sandwiched between some Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”) from his January released mutually eponymous collaboration with Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch Records, 2017), and some traditional Doc Watson, (“Tom Dooley”), was a true treat and definitive highlight, even among the establishment of an already spectacular setlist. Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” from their scene shaking release, A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings, 2016), was given an interpretation that cannot be matched. Not to say it was “better” than Radiohead’s already very indescribable work but, Thile’s crafting of his own way around this unique song, turned the room into an anomaly of space and time – making it feel like an eternally frozen oasis because the awe feels endless and everything else fades out of mental view. Even after Thile finished, he went on with another comedic injection paired with true emotional fervor, trying to convey how he himself doesn’t understand what Radiohead managed to do.
“It’s like, I know how this works. I know these chords! It’s F-sharp minor to F! WHY AM I CRYING?!”
The arrival of the finale to the Bach Partita, (“Chaconne”) was massive enough for Thile to advise those not familiar, to “settle in.” Arguably, that fifth movement would have been the show closer and no one would have thought otherwise; especially given the wave of applause and echoing hollers that burst forth afterward. Alas no, as an encore was all but a given. Thile’s decision to revisit A Prairie Home Companion with a song from the season’s recent finale, capped the matinée off on a dynamically gentler note, while also giving Thile a perfect opportunity to show gratitude in the way suited best to him: performing a humble and friendly musical number. While the general consensus of the audience probably best aligned with the pleading of “Just don’t leave,” in “True Love Waits,” the show sadly did have to end. Knowing this however, Thile so graciously made sure the finish wasn’t about him getting lauded but was simply for saying, “Thanks for listening.”