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Music of Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer speaks volumes

Balboa Theatre, San Diego, September 28, 2008

Reviewed by Rick Bell

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Performers like to talk about stretching their limits, but then complain about the confinements of their record label or even the expectations of their fans to keep producing the same thing over and over. That's never been the case with Chris Thile. The Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers frontman and mandolinist continues pushing his boundaries, which appear to have no limits.

Thile recorded an album earlier this year with bassist Edgar Meyer, and their two-man road show, which came to the newly refurbished 1,400-seat Balboa Theatre, leaves no doubt that whatever Thile wants to do musically, he will do it and perform in amazing fashion.

Just two stools and two floor microphones stood on the historic theater's stage as the pair walked out, instruments in hand - one mike set knee high for Meyer's bass, the other about waist high for Thile's mandolin. No mike for vocals; no array of stringed instruments; no roadie darting out after every song to re-tune Thile's mandolin off stage. This was not going to be Meyer and Thile playing a couple of numbers off their new CD, then launching into a set of Thile's already-vast catalog of work. And if that's what the audience was expecting, well, they didn't show any disappointment as Thile and Meyer covered a spectrum of genres, from lyrical Appalachia folk to smoky, urban jazz to button-down classical.

Zipping from style to style in the studio is one thing; doing it on stage is quite another. The pair performed flawlessly, as if they had worked live shows together for years. Meyer, who is visiting professor of double bass at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has played with the likes of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Bela Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma, often literally draped himself over his instrument, left hand nimbly gliding up and down the neck as his right hand alternated between a bow and plucking the strings.

As skilled and effortless as Meyer's performance was - he truly is in a league of his own, having composed and performed several classical albums - it was Thile who was absolutely riveting. His lanky frame gyrated as he played, often convulsing as he madly riffed off Meyer or delicately picked jaw-dropping solo after solo. Indeed, masters is a well-worn phrase describing talented musicians, but Meyer and Thile deserve the titles.

Their tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach - "We're going to do a medley of Bach now," Meyer said, then paused and corrected himself, adding "Actually, we should call it a suite." Concluding the suite with Bach's "First Rondo," the pair drew thunderous applause and very un-classical-like hoots and hollers from the largely non-classical crowd. The pair's 20-song play list, which was broken into 2 50-minute sets and included one encore, drew heavily from the new album, released in late September on Nonesuch.

And the song titles often were as eclectic as the music itself. Ham and Cheese featured Thile's gently picking away only to go off on seemingly random amazing short runs. There was also Farmer and the Duck and The Pig, both blending folk and classical. Though it was evident each song was painstakingly rehearsed and each note plotted out, no song sounded canned or dull or even methodical. There was spontaneity to each number, as they blew fresh air into traditional classical songs and thrived on a free-wheeling vibe.

Obviously there are no vocal mikes for a reason: The emphasis is on the music. And well it should be. Banter is nice and all, but if neither Meyer nor Thile ever uttered more than an obligatory "thank-you" on stage, their music would still speak volumes.