Chris Thile — mandolin player, composer, songwriter and singer.
Playing the mandolin for and hour and a half…with no break.
His performance in Gainesville at the Phillips Performing Arts Center was amazing.
For the first hour, I watched with my inner jaw hanging open. The mandolin was an extension of him as he played.
He played solo, using the same Lloyd Loar Gibson F-style mandolin and apparently the same pick throughout his performance.
He started playing quietly, softly, pianissimo. I admired the tonal range he could achieve and the range of volume. It is a feat to play with force but so quietly. I can attest to how hard it is to vary volume when one begins to play the mandolin.
As he finished one song, he often transitioned with several minutes of Bach, some improvisation, then into another song. To know your mandolin so well that you can improvise your transitions is amazing.
He would pause between some songs to talk with the audience, often checking the tuning of the mandolin as he talked. He told the song’s name and a little about its background.
Early on he asked: “What does genre mean in music anymore?”
He wanted us to question whether he deserved to be pigeonholed into a genre. While Thile can play bluegrass, newgrass, classical, and jazz — is he really just a jazz mandolinist? He plays the F-style mandolin that often is associated with bluegrass music, but his repertoire also includes classical and folk. His performance conveyed that he wants to break away from any definitions of his style. He played jazz, classical, Celtic, hint of bluegrass and a pinch of folk.
Improvisation was a big part of his performance, making the knowledge it takes to move through scales and notes look like fun. He was amazing.
His second instrument was his voice, a great compliment to his playing in songs like “The Lighthouse’s Tale” that he wrote with Adam McKenzie. He also sang Josh Ritter’s “Another New World.”
Thile seems to be a fan of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I remember when I taught, the “Choose Your Adventures” were very popular. They were great books to motivate students to read. After alluding to the Choose Your Own Adventure series, Thile motivated his audience to get involved by asking the audience if it wanted a song about a snowy owl or a sad drinking song. From the applause and cheering, the majority of the audience selected the sad drinking song. And the audience was engaged, as it had been all along.
At another point, Thile asked the audience to make requests. From the calls of song titles, it was clear many in the audience knew Thile’s music as a member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers or as host of the radio program “Live from Here.”
I’ve now been playing the mandolin for a little more than a year, and I’ve played ukulele for years. The ukulele is a much more forgiving instrument than the mandolin. On ukulele you can play with or without a pick. With the mandolin, you need a pick and there is such a range to choose from. Thile uses a Blue Chip pick, something I’ve not yet considered, to the tune of $75 a pick.
By the end of the performance, Thile was playing forte, sometimes stomping his foot to add rhythm. A standing ovation brought him back on stage, where he ended on a quiet note, playing and singing without a microphone.