By Dennis Cook
Chris Thile and the How To Grow A Band
02.25.07 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
"This is a Radiohead song we all really like," said Chris Thile as he strapped on his mandolin for the encore. It's an unlikely thing to hear from what, on the surface, appears to be a very pure string band. On hiatus from Nickel Creek, the Mingus of Mandolin cut through the San Fran drizzle with a dazzling Sunday night service.
Drawing largely from Thile's debut release with this aggregate of superlative pickers, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, this intimate two-set performance seamlessly wove together Bach, bluegrass, white country blues, and indie rock with room for Latin tangents and bebop-worthy soloing. Eclecticism like this can seem like a rough hand swinging down a radio dial but these boys made everything flow with almost unnerving ease. Like most true musicians, this is how they hear music in their heads – overlapping congruencies instead of neat, saleable divisions.
To wit, the final stretch ran from a twirling, modal original instrumental called "The Beekeeper" to a yodeling, barnstormin' rendition of the great Jimmie Rodgers' "Brakeman's Blues" to an angular, hypnotic reading of Radiohead's "Morning Bell" that incongruously emerged into a dusty hoedown. That the Radiohead they chose came from the troubled, experimental Kid A and not the better-known OK Computer is telling. Thile and company mine for silver anywhere that opens up to them. What they forge from that raw material is strong, intricate, and flashing bright.
Besides Thile, the quintet includes Gabe Witcher (violin) and former Leftover Salmon-ers Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Greg Garrison (bass). Replacing Chris Eldridge, who played on the studio session, was celebrated acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The speed, control, and sheer beauty of their playing, both collectively and as individuals, is breathtaking. Led by the enduringly youthful Thile, their singing and instruments blended in a way that reminded us of the enormous power to please lying inside wood, wires, and the human voice. Dressed in weathered jeans and an ad hoc mix of well-loved sweaters and jackets, they brought to mind The Band or David Grisman's '70s groups – lightly tossled, bohemian-gentleman players.
Chris Thile by Erin Spurling
There's a lot of good acoustic string-based bands out there. And while the musicianship is almost always stellar, the material often feels like a mere retread of Bill Monroe or Django Reinhardt. The difference comes in the choice of material, and this is where the How To Grow A Band has it all over the competition. Besides his own singular compositional vision, Thile brought in great tunes from Gillian Welch & David Rawlings ("Wayside"), The White Stripes ("Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"), fantastic Galician chamber folk band Milladoiro ("O Santo de Polvora"), and especially rousing takes on The Band's "Ophelia" (with Witcher on lead vocals) and The Strokes' "Heart In A Cage." It's a freewheeling variety that compares well with Chatham County Line, The Hackensaw Boys, and The Gourds, but frankly betters them in several regards.
There's a melancholy sense of revelation to Thile's recent work, inspired by a painful divorce a short while back. This mood was most prevalent in the first movement of a new piece tentatively titled "The Blind Leaving The Blind" that will be featured on the group's upcoming second release. Beginning with the line, "Tell me what you want me to think," it dives into deep waters cut by lovely musical interludes and an overlapping group dynamic that's simply unlike anything else in the string game today.
The largely seated audience drank all of this in with hushed attentiveness. It was a genuine treat to have the collective focus be on the music instead of the usual fight to hear over endless chatter and drunken rustling. While much of this was a good ol' foot stompin' time, there's a lot that would be missed if one's ears weren't tuned into the curves and twists inside this music. Thile, glass of whiskey in hand, rewarded our respectful attentions with anecdotes and witty retorts worthy of the Rat Pack in their Vegas heyday. Despite his age, Thile is a stage veteran. That he chooses to use this forum to fearlessly probe both the sunlight and the darkness in his soul is what makes him, and the company he keeps, true greats.
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