“That word broadminded is spelled S-I-N.” A curious charge to be sung out loud and clear at the outset of a two-hour performance that would subsequently veer from Radiohead to J.S. Bach to the Strokes to Robert Burns to Doc Watson to Fiona Apple to Gillian Welch. It’s the first line of a mid-20th-century Louvin Brothers song, perhaps chosen by Chris Thile (of the Punch Brothers) for its irony in relation to the mandolinist’s improbably wide perspective of what can coexist within a single artist’s musical vision. It’s not uncommon for musical virtuosos to transcend genre distinctions, but Thile seems to use such broadmindedness as a means of defining himself. Forgive him, Charlie and Ira Louvin, for he has sinned.
In a preview of Sunday’s Chris Thile show at the Carolina Theatre, Thread contributor Stephen Deusner suggested some potential rhyme and reason for Thile’s disparate interests: Perhaps he sees less of a musical chasm between old-time folk and classical realms than their respective cultures imply, and maybe the primal riffage of garage-rock serves as a tonic for bluegrass precision. But just as Deusner concluded that there is “no tidy, one-to-one parallel between these disparate musical traditions,” I came away from Thile’s solo performance feeling that there was no grand statement made, or indeed attempted. This was simply one artist’s impression of music, delivered in a manner that makes us reconsider our own.
Taken as such, it was rewarding to revel in Thile’s medleys, mismatches, and mishmashes. That opening salvo from the Louvin Brothers segued into a movement from Thile’s own ambitious composition “The Blind Leading the Blind” before concluding with the traditional bluegrass tune “Rabbit in the Log.” Later, Radiohead’s “The Tourist” commingled with the prelude of Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, transcribed from violin to mandolin. (Thile returned to Bach later, performing three movements from the middle of the Partita.) And the crowd certainly delighted in “Fiddle Tune Request Time,” during which Thile fielded dozens of suggestions from the audience before settling on a triptych of “Blackberry Blossom,” “Black Mountain Rag” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
A potential drawback of Thile’s extensive musical panorama is that his artistry might come across as overly complicated. While his set-closing cover of Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can” was provocative, its tour-de-force of instrumental gimmickry — harmonic pings, percussive raps on the mandolin’s body, tweaks of the tuning pegs — didn’t necessarily serve the song. Perhaps in acknowledgment, he chose for his encore not a roof-raising burner but Gillian Welch’s elegantly simple “Dear Someone.”
He may be rediscovering how less can be more: It’s notable that a number he introduced by saying, “I’m going to try a song I haven’t done in a long time,” turned out to be the show-stopper. It was “Sweet Afton,” a Robert Burns poem set to music two centuries ago and recorded by Thile’s formative band, Nickel Creek, in 2000. When he played it, the room stilled to an absolute hush. Everything else fell away, leaving only the graceful melody of the mandolin and Thile’s high, sweet voice: “Flow gently sweet river, disturb not her dream.”
“Sweet Afton” by Chris Thile: