As we’ve come to know, there are times when the larger concert venues, like The Town Hall, combine the best of highbrow entertainment with the roots-based music we so love. This came to pass when Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile joined forces for a live concert at The Town Hall in support of their recent CD Release, Bass & Mandolin.
Both have numerous side projects — Meyer has recorded and toured with Yo Yo Ma as well as other roots-based musicians and Thile has been a member of The Punch Brothers for the past few years. He has made another album with Meyer, the eponymously titled Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile (2008).
Additionally, they were both on the recording The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011) which included Yo Yo Ma and bluegrass stalwart Stuart Duncan (plus Aoife O’Donovan on two tracks).
Thile has been quoted as having said, “Edgar is one of the biggest influences on my musical life, and now I’m in a duo with him and writing songs with him. This was my dream. I always wondered what it would be like to be playing music this hard.”
An air of excitement accompanied the two as they swiftly strode onstage. Characteristically, Chris Thile engaged with the music like a boxer, bobbing, weaving and feinting with each turn of phrase.
I can’t be the only one who notices the resemblance that Thile bears to British actor Jude Law. Watching Chris, it’s as if Jude Law suddenly became a world class mandolin player. Thile has an actor’s command of stage presence and physical and facial expression.
Quite often, his motions were suggestive of a marionette whose limbs were being controlled by the music. He pitched and rolled, twisted and jerked upward and down, expressing faux surprise at times at what the music was forcing his body to do.
Bolstering my observation on Thile’s demonstrative stage skills, on the second number the music abruptly slowed and Chris turned blank and affected a serious mein, glancing at Edgar, seeming to wait for him to proceed to a livelier passage and for permission to become more animated. This prompted one of many moments of audience laughter. While Edgar proved to be a competent co-host, articulating the rationale behind several of the evening’s musical pieces, he mostly played foil to Chris’s animated persona.
Thile has always shown a propensity for wanting to move beyond the limits of bluegrass, even while with Nickel Creek. I’ll conjecture that his collaboration with Meyer led to a full-out excursion into classical music and the release of the album Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 (2013).
This duly noted, it follows that a combination of classical and roots material would be a highlight of the evening. The intricacies of the compositions appeared to elicit a stunned disbelief from the audience and an almost reverently joyous response at the finish of each piece.
Although the concert was comprised entirely of instrumentals, the duo kept the audience engaged with the intensity of its playing and timely intermittent patter. Near the end of the evening, the audience was encouraged to become fully engaged, as Edgar and Chis played an untitled piece, then asked the audience to name it. They related that this had already been played out in other cities and other names chosen. Shouts came from everywhere. We heard things like “Catch and Release” and “Wombat something-or-other.” (too close to the Seattle choice). The evening’s winner (picked by Chris) turned out to be a surprisingly unimaginative “Free Bird.”
The audience gave the duo a standing ovation after the “last” number, thus prompting a one-song encore, followed again with another standing “O”. This was my first trip back here after a long hiatus, and I was reminded that The Town Hall, with its pristine acoustics and less-than-cavernous space, provides a nice bridge between a larger venue and one with a smaller nightclub-like intimacy.