There are not many performers that will make another musician want to give up the hobby, but Chris Thile is certainly one of those select few. Decorated only by a sole Oriental rug, a single microphone and his trusty mandolin, Chris wowed the audience at Memorial Hall as only a person of his esteemed craftsmanship could.
Thile is a prolific performer, probably most well-known for his work with alternative folk group Nickel Creek. His technical abilities are immediately apparent upon listening, and definitely what he leans on to draw the audience in. He earned indie cred by covering Pavement and Radiohead, but also impressed the aristocrats with his solo classical work and collaborations with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. On top of that, Thile is also the host of the variety radio show Live from Here, which upon mention drew a cheer of delight from many of the public radio enthusiasts in attendance.
To walk into the recently restored Memorial Hall on Wednesday evening was to rub elbows with a sophisticated crowd of all ages. The group that night was an educated bunch in large, one that will understand, or at least pretend to understand, the musical theory and Dionysus references Thile weaves into his stories between songs.
The intimate environment of Memorial Hall seemed to impress the folk star, who undoubtedly has seen some of the most beautiful venues around the world. At several times you could catch him staring off into the distance, almost as if he was listening blissfully to how his individual sound bounced off the walls, and allowing the feedback to influence the next melody.
With the exception of one inebriated catcaller, the crowd was blissfully silent during each song, listening to every small note of Thile’s intricate mandolin work. During one medley, Thile began with Bach, seamlessly transitioned to the bluegrass tune “Rabbit in the Log,” and then broke into a slow, deliberate blues dirge. His ability to switch styles while maintaining focus and authenticity is truly an inspirational, or perhaps disillusioning, feat.
Like any true virtuoso, Thile has become an extension of his instrument, and to see him express in a small venue is the real treat. His face rarely turned to his instrument, which at times sounded like a piano sonata and other times like a loud ringing bell. All the crowd could do was respectfully guffaw as he landed a solo that seemed like it was teetering off course but its trajectory had in reality been perfectly plotted.
Towards the end of the night, Thile opened it up for requests, then took three at once as he performed a seamless back-and-forth medley of “Helena,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Rye Whiskey.” Such is commonplace for the master of mandolins, but the awe of his contemporaries.