Friday, April 07, 2017

Chris Thile: A Daring Home Companion

When mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile made his first appearances on public radio's long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion, he was still a teenager, the extroverted lead vocalist of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother Sean on guitar.  Thile told host Garrison Keillor how they would dare each other to make songs from random road signs.  For that, more than for any interest in bluegrass or Thile's virtuosity on mandolin, I started my collection of Chris Thile recordings.   

[PHOTO: Chris Thile at Zankel Hall, by Tina Fineberg for the New York Times. ]

Nearly twenty years later, when my collection has expanded beyond Nickel Creek to include solo albums, duets with classical and jazz artists, and genre-bending material with his band Punch Brothers, Chris Thile is still daring himself to try new things.

Taking on the role of host for Prairie Home Companion has been his biggest leap of faith. As I saw at Atlanta's Fox Theatre during Garrison Keillor's last weeks with the show, the audience was faithful in more ways than one (see my review).  For us, the show was as much ritual as entertainment, with familiar features and jokes that never failed (e.g. "Powder Milk Biscuits are pure-- mostly").  Keillor's blend of folksiness, Protestant in-jokes, and urbane irony was unique.  Besides, the appreciative audience had been tuning in to Keillor's live broadcasts since Thile was a toddler; teens among us didn't get it.  Could Thile bring in a younger listeners without alienating his base of boomers?

I'd say Thile was a brilliant choice.

First, he's a versatile musician. Chris Thile says that he homed in on the mandolin at age nine when his family went to a live music pizza parlor, because the mandolinist was the showiest guy on the stand.  By age twelve, the chubby little blonde mandolin virtuoso from California had a commercial recording (still available on CD).  Now he strikes boisterous dissonant chords, picks rapid-fire licks, plucks sweet melodies that fall like rain, and sometimes ruminates with sparse, dry staccato notes. Even when the mood is dark, there's a brightness and hope in the sound.  His wide-ranging voice matches the moods, whether crooning, hooting, moaning, or spitting out lyrics.

On the shows I've heard, Thile's effusive, good with upbeat patter, and natural-sounding in scripted sketches.  His musical guests trend younger and edgier, but Paul Simon and poet Billy Collins have also performed. Young comics get the slot that was always reserved for Keillor's tales from Lake Woebegone, and they work just fine.

But the most fun is listening to Thile taking musical chances.  He challenges himself to compose words and music for a Song of the Week that fits the time.  The ones I've heard have been, as Ellington loved to say, "beyond category."  For the show November 12, Thile walked as fine a line as Keillor ever did, addressing a song to his wife and little son that resonated with an audience worked up over the recent election:
But I don't wanna fight fire with fire
And I don't wanna preach to the choir

So whether you're laughing or crying
If you're doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine
As God is my witness

I made this for you
                       - "I Made This For You" by Chris Thile
He plays mandolin as easily as he speaks, quoting melodies of any composer he mentions, from Strauss (Johann and Ricard) to Dylan to Barber's Violin Concerto.  He and his band perform an audience request, unrehearsed, with the rules that no one on stage can have written or performed the song before.  So far as I've heard, taking a wide variety of requests, he and his cohort haven't crashed and burned yet. An improvised arrangement of "Blackbird" was memorable.

The biggest risk to the show's fans is that such a restless, creative guy won't be tied down to this regular gig for long.

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