Last night in Oak Cliff, Chris Thile proffered far more than a solo acoustic concert. As it often is when a noted artist performs without an opening band, the show was presented as, "An Evening with Chris Thile." What an evening it was.
Part classical history lesson, part stand-up routine and part prog-roots clinic, Thile's performance thrilled the crowd at the sold-out Kessler. Thile, who turns 33 years old today, was playing his final solo performance before turning his attention to the reuniting of his original band, Nickel Creek.
Thile presented an outline for the show: The various movements (Sonata Number 1 in G minor 1 Adagio, Sonata No.1 In G Minor II. Fuga: Allegro, Partita Number 1 in B Minor, and Sonatas Number 1 in G Minor Siciliana and Presto) from his stupendous, recently released Bach: Sonatas and Partitas 1 comprised the framework. It was filled in by various solo songs and covers, which he referred to as "stuff" during this outline. So it seems only fitting that we break down last night's triumphant show in four parts.
I. Thile the Bach Revivalist and Re-inventor: It's the opinion of some folks smarter than we are about classical music that Bach's greatest works aren't supposed to, well, work, when played with instrumentation other than what he intended originally. As Thile's fingers danced up and down his mandolin, it was easy to forget this timeless set of music was written for violin. In the hands of Thile, the classic movements felt fresh, and during the frenzy that was the rousing finale of the his Presto performance, the thankful crowd lept to its feet in unison to applaud.
II. Thile the Acoustic Experimentalist: To lighten things up and to throw continuous curves our way, Thile proffered a pleasantly odd array of tunes between his Bach fixes. It was during loose, raw covers of Fiona Apple's "Fast As You Can" and the Louvin Brothers "Broadminded" where Thile's playfulness first showed itself. His flirtatious glances were timed perfectly and his contorted expressions during extended, up-tempo jams would rival any guitar-faces of the wonkiest blues players (or John Mayer).
With "Rabbit in the Log," he deftly transferred to break-neck Bluegrass that one might typically expect only to bring things down, creating palpable tension with his Goth-grass "Stay Away." The blends of textures and tempos created a captivating sense of unpredictability.
III. Thile the Late Night Host: As enjoyable as his playing was, Thile worked the crowd better with his mouth than he did his mandolin. Even the banter that was likely rehearsed and rehashed was engaging. He joked about how many Civil War songs were required in each set by the "Solo Performers Union" only then to poke fun at the grammatical skills of the Union soldiers before he launched into "Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel." The best line of the night came as the result of a loud clanging when a beer bottle was tossed into a full trash can as he was about to strum an opening note, grabbing everyone's attention, including Thile's. He chuckled with the crowd, and then said, "That better had been a Shiner Bock! Get it? Bock, like, Bach!" only to recover with, "Well, let's get this partita started." his demeanor was welcoming, grateful and gracious. He's been performing since he was eight years old, and he's learned how to command a stage to perfection.
IV. The Kessler and the Crowd: Last night was a perfect marriage of artist and venue. Sure, Thile's solo act would've also been nice at the Majestic Theater or a venue of that ilk, but the intimate confines of the Kessler were ideal. The sound has always been great at the Kessler, but with the crew and their equipment focusing on the individual strums of the mandolin, the theater felt as comfy as a small living room with a few friends casually sitting around. During the vast majority of the evening, the quiet nature of the audience was simply stunning in its reverence.
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Not that the show was one long evening in a library, though. The audience was as integral to the success of the night as Thile's mandolin was. One witty fellow in the balcony cracked a couple of well-timed (and slightly off-color) jokes which made Thile not only laugh, but acknowledge the jovial fan for his humor. The crowd got a bit too conversational with Thile at one point as he was trying to introduce a tune, but it was in good fun.
This wasn't a normal show, or even a really great booking. As one of the fastest sell-outs in the Kessler's recent history, there's no question last night was more than a mere concert. It was an event of great magnitude.