Where the Bluegrass is Greener
By Jim Gilchrist
CHRIS Thile, the Paganini – or should that be the Hendrix? – of the bluegrass mandolin, can play like a man possessed, while leaving would-be pigeonholers reeling in his slipstream. Even in mere conversation, he exudes music, all sorts of music, just as he appears to have absorbed everything from Bill Munroe to Bach in a process of fevered osmosis since his San Francisco childhood.
“Growing up in southern California, I didn’t necessarily get the purest form of bluegrass, and I think that set the tone for my musical life,” he laughs. He’s speaking from his base in New York, on the countdown to his forthcoming UK tour with his current band, Punch Brothers, who blow into Glasgow next Thursday for what is, sadly, their only Scottish date.
“I just grew up feeling that music was a sort of swirling mass of ideas. What I thought was bluegrass some old Kentucky boy would have laughed at,” he continues.
Clearly, the ideas are still swirling. At 27, Thile has tucked more music-making under his belt than most – he was all of eight when he started playing with the similarly pre-teen Sean and Sara Watkins, the three becoming the Grammy-winning prog-bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek – and released his first solo album when he was 13. With Nickel Creek taking an indefinite rest, Thile is well matched by his Brothers-in-Punch – fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Greg Harrison on bass, who are all formidable instrumentalists in their own right.
Earlier this year they released their much-lauded debut album, Punch, which features Thile’s extraordinary composition, The Blind Leading the Blind – in effect a chamber quintet for bluegrass ensemble. I was in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket in January when Thile and company performed it, with more than a few restive bluegrass fans finding it perplexing, with a shuffling of departing short attention spans and the odd disgruntled call of “Play some bluegrass.”
“Yes indeed,” Thile chortles at the recollection. “Looking back, that probably would have been a good opportunity not to play the entire piece all the way through. Now we tend to do two movements, then a bunch of other stuff, then two more movements.”
Thile, who won BBC’s 2007 Folk Musician of the Year accolade, is used to getting stick for “betraying bluegrass”, as some affronted purists put it. “We’re certainly not trying to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” he says, affably, “and I think word is spreading – the very traditional bluegrass fans are tending not to come.”
Personally, I’d exhort anyone who appreciates good music to give The Blind Leading the Blind a listen. An unhurried, bittersweet affair, its structure leaving room for improvisation, it shifts between pedal-to-metal bluegrass and episodes suggestive of Bach strolling through Nashville. Also featuring Thile’s high and lonesome vocals, the piece was informed by his marriage break-up, and its composition did, he says, have a certain cathartic effect – although he stresses that he’s not in the business of treating audiences as a therapy substitute.
Forthcoming projects include a second Punch album, and a collaboration with the renowned and similarly eclectically-inclined double-bassist Edgar Meyer, while Thile’s burgeoning interest in long-form composition sees him writing a concerto for mandolin and orchestra – so, roll over Vivaldi.
Bach he loves, unqualifiedly, although that doesn’t stop him from lending an equally eager ear to Radiohead or to Bill Munroe. And while the late Munroe, “the father of bluegrass”, might have raised a grizzled eyebrow at some of Punch’s musical adventuring, take it from me, they can still raise the dust.
* Punch Brothers play Oran Mor, Glasgow, on 17 July.
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