Covers and Classical Moves From a Bluegrass Virtuoso

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Monday February 11, 2008

from The New York Times

Covers and Classical Moves From a Bluegrass Virtuoso
By Stephen Holden

To call the 27-year-old mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile the Les Paul of his instrument describes only one aspect of a musician who could just as rightly be compared to a great classical guitarist. Although Mr. Thile, an alumnus of Nickel Creek, can toss off witty, jazz-flavored bluegrass solos with breathtaking velocity, his technique is merely the starting point for serious experiments in genre bending that incorporate music ranging from Bach to Radiohead.

On Wednesday evening at the Allen Room, where he appeared as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, Mr. Thile and his newest band, Punch Brothers, performed Radiohead’s ‘Morning Bell,’ the Beatles’ ‘Baby’s in Black’ and the Strokes’ ‘Heart in a Cage.’

But the evening’s centerpiece, in which Mr. Thile demonstrated his sensitivity as a composer, ensemble player and singer, was his four-movement, 40-minute suite ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind,’ from the group’s forthcoming album, ‘Punch’ (Nonesuch). More than half the music in the suite is instrumental; the rest consists of introspective songs about the breakup of a relationship that obliquely touch on matters of faith and religion. Singing in a high, soft, vibratoless voice with the tiniest hint of a country twang, Mr. Thile evoked a young man going through a devastating personal crisis and emerging with a precarious stability.

Although the suite includes upbeat moments, mostly it subverts the spirit of bluegrass, discovering an empathetic brotherhood of sorrow behind its traditional foundation of robust, harmoniously competitive fraternity. Much of the music is chromatic, mildly dissonant and strikingly lacking in aggression.

Most of the sunnier moments are emotional false starts, and the music often slows to a near whisper before picking itself up. On Wednesday, it was hard to know what was improvised and what not, but the impression was one of meticulous arrangements that allowed little room for spontaneity.

Even in the happiest of times, Mr. Thile is not a hale and hearty singer. But his voice is distinctively plaintive; now and then he was joined by two or three Punch Brothers singing close harmony. Because group dynamics are such an important ingredient of the style, the playing required the concentration of a classical quintet. Those highly credentialed players were Chris Eldridge on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Gabe Witcher on fiddle.

Even with the shifting boundaries of what is called new acoustic music, ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ expands the frontier of an emerging style of what might be called American country-classical chamber music.

Read the full article here