Chris Thile
Largo at The Coronet, Los Angeles
26 April, 2010

“You must be the most attentive audience, ever” joked Chris Thile, during his performance at LA’s gem Largo at the Coronet, “It’s not often that you can hear the performer’s water bottle snap back into place.”

And it was true, in this intimate setting of about 75 people (including fan Minnie Driver), Mr. Thile was the center of everyone’s attention. There was no heckling or chatter between songs, just enthusiastic, almost rapturous applause for this mandolin virtuoso. Now, Webcuts is not usually in the market to talk about a man and his mandolin. A guitar, sure. Mandolin in the context of a collective (see: Animal), maybe. But it doesn’t feature heavily here as a main instrument.

Enter Thile, of the former superstar bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek and current darlings The Punch Brothers. Over the years, he’s won a Grammy and sold more than 2 million records (with Nickel Creek), played with Dolly Parton, played the Kennedy Center and been commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to write a concerto (“Ad astra per alas porci”) which he played to sold-out audiences in January. Before you discount bluegrass as not having a place on Webcuts, read on.

Where all of that original compositional glory gets sticky is that Thile has developed quite a lovely habit of covering bands, and due to his facility in talent, he takes each song to places that are almost unrecognizable from their origins.

At the concert on Monday night, a solo Thile covered Radiohead’s “Morning Bell”, only one of many Radiohead songs that Punch Brothers together have played live (others have included “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box”, “2+2=5”, “Kid A”) in a blistering 9 minute, sweaty mess on his vintage 1924 Gibson F5-Loar.

In his tradition of nonconventional covers (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” by The White Stripes, “Spit on a Stranger” by Pavement) he also discussed his love of the filthy-mouthed Welsh punk band McLusky with “Icarus Smicarus”, seamlessly following Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”. An encore included The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” by request from the sole (welcomed) suggestion.

All of these amazingly managed to weave in between the movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Violin Partita in d minor”. Thile’s own “Punch Bowl”, the aforementioned “Morning Bell” and a fabulous new melancholic track “Alex” were smashed between the partita’s “Allemande” and “Courante.” With trepidation, Thile moved towards Bach’s twelve-minute “Chaconne”, with its intricate neck fingering, Thile expressively writhing in all directions more than most young heavy metal guitarists. To imagine almost double the number of strings on a mandolin being played with such intricacy is to be in disbelief — like that world champion cup stacker kid. How can me move so fast?

Additional selections included Thile’s collaboration with Edgar Meyer (“Ham and Cheese”), “Sweet Blue Eyed Darlin'”, “Rabbit in a Log”, “Next to the Trash”, and “I’m Yours if you Want Me.” In between, he effortlessly bantered and sipped on scotch.

One of the most moving pieces of the night was a track off of Nickel Creek’s final album, “Why Should The Fire Die?”. This song of longing and sadness followed Thile’s divorce a few years ago and still resonates, especially when it’s sung on a semi-darkened stage with spare vintage bulbs hanging above, nothing else to focus on but Mr. Thile and his delicate melody. Again, the audience was silent — respectful, captivated and thanking the Largo for keeping Thile close.

Mr. Thile is never a disappointment — always bringing commitment and frenzied work to his performances. There’s more to look forward to as the Punch Brothers release their newest record, Antifogmatic on June 15. It’s named for a 19th century libation, and the deluxe packaging of which will include cocktail recipes by the band. Cheers to that!