Is mandolin face a thing? It sure is if you’re Chris Thile, judging from his performance Wednesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
The 36-year-old musical polymath – MacArthur Fellow, A Prairie Home Companion host, leader of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers and too many bluegrass/jazz/classical collaborations to list – hugged his instrument like Hendrix, fingertips flying with ferocity. Here he’d arch the brows above his sunken eyes, there he’d curl the lip of his grimace to his cheekbones, all throughout he’d herk and jerk as his body snapped with convulsed with each note of string-popping virtuosity.
And this was all just during the opening number, a 12-minute, tour de force suite of the Punch Brothers' My Oh My; a bit of Bach’s Partita in D Minor; and Here and Heaven, a song from Thile’s 2011 Goat Rodeo Sessions album with, among others, Yo-Yo Ma. Got all that?
“I hope it was as good for you as it was for me,” Thile said after that one.
It was definitely a good introduction to Thile’s solo Tampa debut. Unbound by the harmonies and melodies of Nickel Creek, the intricate instrumentation of the Punch Brothers and the family-band grandeur of A Prairie Home Companion, Thile was free to cut loose with a generous display of his dynamic mandolin skills and omnivorous musical mind. The result felt more like a classical concerto than a down-home folk revue.
The sounds Thile’s mandolin made as his hands flicked the fretboard were almost onomatopoeic – PLIP! ZIP! TIKI-TIKI-TONG! He’d pluck it like a lute, scratch the strings until it rustled like a trilling violin, rip his pick up and down like a punk. And in his quieter moments, his impressions of Bach, he’d leave milliseconds of pin-drop silence between the notes, during which you didn't want to breathe.
Thankfully, he unwound that tension with some key moments of levity and lightheartedness, including the rollicking bluegrass standard Rabbit In the Log and a couple of songs penned for A Prairie Home Companion – the witty and vocally dexterous Thanksgiving ode The Elephant In the Room, and closer Thanks for Listening, and indie-folkish song that crescendoed to a rousing exclamation point.
One thing the show wasn’t: A greatest-hits set for fans of Nickel Creek or the Punch Brothers. He played the former’s lovely Jealous of the Moon and Appalachian-flavored The Lighthouse’s Tale, and the latter’s Another New World, which seemed to sweep the him into a grinning reverie. But he seemed much more interested in weaving others' works into his own. His and Brad Mehldau’s Daughter of Eve drifted into Neil Young’s Tell Me Why, which had many in the audience singing along in a low mumble. His teenage-penned Song For a Young Queen flowed into one of his signature Radiohead covers, the fragile ballad True Love Waits.
At one point, Thile marveled at how long it’s been since he last played Tampa – more than a decade with Nickel Creek, and never once with the Punch Brothers (an oversight he promised to rectify).
Then an audience member yelled that Thile should go all the way and bring a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion to Tampa.
“Yes!” Thile said. “That’s a good idea! We should definitely do that!”
He should. Simply hearing Thile’s voice and music is one thing. It’s even more fun to see the face that goes with them.
-- Jay Cridlin