In Concert

“That didn’t even sound like a mandolin,” I said to my companion – a mandolinist of some considerable skill – as we left Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts after attending An Evening with Chris Thile.

“That’s what a mandolin’s supposed to sound like,” he said.

I guess so.

A musician myself, I’ve always found that particular instrument to be a bit shrill, a bit annoying, a tiny guitar with too many strings that doesn’t know if it wants to be a hillbilly or a classy sort of feller. I hadn’t known what to expect a couple hours earlier as my friend and I found our seats and watched a lone gentleman clutching an aged instrument step out under a single white spotlight.
But the acoustics and the sound system in the complex’s Center Theatre – both of which match the room’s clean and classy comfort – could have had something to do with the beautiful sounds I’d hear for the next two hours.

So could the single classic microphone, standing at the front of the stage to catch both Thile’s voice and playing.

It might have been the mandolin he was playing – nearly a century old, built by a legendary luthier, and aged gracefully to perfection like most antique stringed instruments do, if they survive that long.
But I’m pretty sure most of the credit goes to the man on the mandolin. From the first keening cry that erupted from his throat – met moments later by the plucking, picking, and petting of eight strings that wouldn’t let up till we were all satisfied – everyone in that theater was at the mercy of a real master. A master musician. A master showman. A man on the mandolin.

After beginning the set with a tune of his own followed by one by his band, The Punch Brothers, Thile took the classier road, performing Bach’s Partita in D Minor. On the mandolin. And, as I said up top, it didn’t sound like a mandolin to me, or what I thought a mandolin would sound like. Like so many other apex instrumentalists before him – Joshua Bell on his Strad, Jimi Hendrix on his Strat – Thile turned the wood and the wire into something more than what it had been crafted into – something other than a mandolin, entirely. The sound was huge, beautiful, otherworldly, other. It filled the hall. It filled me. I don’t know if I took a breath from the first note to the last.

My friend noted that not a note of Bach’s had needed to be added or changed, that what Bach wrote almost exactly three centuries ago was perfect then, and is still perfect today. And Thile played it perfectly. When he’d finished, he acknowledged the song’s creator, “Johann Sebastian Bach…the MAN”…even though right then, Thile was the man, playing some of history’s most brilliant music as brilliantly as it could be played.

But perfectly performing classical pieces isn’t this man’s only trick. Nope. I’ve seen Joshua Bell play the hell out of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – one of the other times in my life I’ve had the pleasure of watching, hearing, experiencing one virtuoso interpret the work of another. But many virtuosos are one-trick ponies. Most doesn’t also host a long-running radio program that has become an institution, taking over for its beloved creator and decades-long voice. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but few musicians you could call virtuosos also write and perform their own music – music that can hold up during a program that features composition’s colossi.

Introducing a tune he’d written as a “Song of the Week” for Prairie Home Companion, Thile lamented last November’s electoral result and the direction of the country with the romping “Elephant in the Room.” A couple numbers later, he pulled out another written for NPR on the same theme, the swaggering “Falsetto.” Other originals were highlights, too. When Thile asked the audience for requests, one was The Punch Brothers’ “Magnet,” which he noted was one-fifth written by a Skokie native. After that he played another of his own – from this year’s collaboration with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau – a reflection on his favorite childhood bible story called “Daughter of Eve.”

While Thile’s playing and writing are indeed masterful, his voice is worth noting, too. All night I kept trying to come up with comparisons for what I was hearing, and because of his voice, I kept coming back to Jeff Buckley. Not because Thile can sing as well as Buckley – nobody can. But he reminded me of Buckley in the way he let his voice soar freely, in the way he could just let it go, up and up and up, floating and searching and floating some more, unashamed and free.

But mostly he reminded me of Jeff Buckley in his ability to take music written by others and make it his. I heard it when he made the bluegrass classic “Rabbit in the Hole” sound brand new, still respecting its roots. I heard it when he covered Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” turning a classic album’s opening tune I know so well into something new, too. And I heard it on my second favorite song of the night – one I admit I didn’t know the provenance of, mistaking it for an old sea shanty standard until I got home and looked it up – a take on Josh Ritter’s “Another New World.” As he did during each vocal piece, Thile interspersed bursts of virtuosic playing throughout the song – mixing mandolin with sails and ships, with Ninas and Pintas and Santa Marias, with Annabel Lee – the end result even more than just a beautiful story beautifully told and beautifully sung. It was beautifully played.

The highlight of the night, however, began with a little aside (Thile’s also a talker, as any radio personality should be, I suppose), as he told the crowd he’d written “Song for a Young Queen” as a boy, inspired by Natalie Portman in her 90s role as the future mother of Luke and Leia, and his own true boyhood love for her. And then came a magical moment for me. Now, I’ve seen a lot of shows in my life. But the one show – and the one moment during that show – that still means the most for me was way back in August of 2001. On a day that had hit a hundred, with the grass of Grant Park beneath my feet, with Lake Michigan to my right, with Chicago’s skyline to my left, and with a full moon above me and behind me, my favorite band Radiohead encored with a then-little-known rarity, “True Love Waits.” When that band’s singer, Thom Yorke, began it, it was one of those moments. So when, during his own song, Chris Thile sang Yorke’s words, “I’ll drown my beliefs,” he had my ear. And when he took that song, one I know inside and out, and stretched it out and embellished it with his playing and made it his own, he had my heart. And when he ended with its lyrics, “just don’t leave,” I didn’t want him to.

So, needless to say, seeing Chris Thile play the other night at Skokie’s North Shore Center was a performance I won’t forget. It’s, to be honest, a performance I’m still processing. The man showed off his many talents. The mandolin never sounded better. And this musician – now a fan – might never have seen the untouchable greats – the real inarguable virtuosos like Jimi on guitar or Buckley and his voice – ply their craft. But he can say he did see one in Skokie in October of 2017 when he was lucky enough to hear what mandolins supposed to sound like. When played by a master. When played by the man.

Published in In Concert

 

 

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