Musical genius is elusive. It's hard to recognize, or is only recognized after a lifetime of musical output. All too often it is only recognized long after the artist has passed on. It is a rare thing to be able to identify it early in a career, allowing you to enjoy that artist's development with the insight such recognition affords.

Chris Thile is such an artist. At the tender age of 21, he may very well develop into the greatest mandolin player to ever pluck a string. That potential was in bountiful evidence at the Freight & Salvage Coffee House on February 21. Together with mandolin legend Mike Marshall, they created some of the most beautiful and inspired music I can imagine. Playing off one another, pushing each other to the limit, engaging in complex musical conversations, the two mandolin virtuosos ran the gamut of emotions from joy to sorrow, suffering to ecstasy.

The performers were loving every minute of it, laughing and joking, smiling incessantly, even exchanging high-fives after tunes. There were moments of exquisite delicacy, with the room so quiet you could hear a pin drop. (The Freight & Salvage is one of the nicest rooms in the Bay Area, friendly and intimate, with great acoustics and even better crowds who truly appreciate the music.) Marshall switched between mandolin and mandocello – an instrument shaped like a mandolin but tuned like a cello - while Thile concentrated on his mandolin and mandola, which is tuned like a viola. The huge grins and interplay between the musicians brought the crowd immediately into the moment.

Other highlights of the performance included a terrific "Gator Strut" and Chris' new tune, "Waiting in Kodiak", about time spent stuck in Kodiak, Alaska following the September 11 events. Chris also played some songs that evoked suffering and despair, emotions not always associated with the usually sprightly mandolin; the ability to conjure these emotions in a mandolin duet is impressive. They finished the 2nd set with a long, totally sick, out-of-control improv jam that ended with Chris singing Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" at warp speed. Both musicians practically collapsed at the end of it, as the crowd exploded into an ovation rarely seen at "quiet" acoustic shows.

While Mike Marshall has nothing to prove on the mandolin, given his well-established reputation, it is a rare privilege to be "in" on the early career of a musician like Chris Thile. It is going to be a joy to follow his development and watch him get better and better. I truly believe we are witnessing the early steps of what may turn out to be the greatest mandolin player ever. I am personally excited at what's in store, and have to believe that everyone walking out of the Freight & Salvage (after shaking their heads at what they just saw) felt the same way.

John Waldman
Jambase San Francisco
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 2/28/02]

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