Review: Chris Thile

First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2013

Chris Thile
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

“The mighty fugue!” cried Chris Thile, devilishly dexterous and eclectic American mandolin player, as he polished off the second movement of Bach’s G minor Sonata for solo violin. The 32-year-old has been on stage since about as long as he could hold up an instrument and it shows: he’s a consummate performer, not just in his flash mandolin licks but in his deftly loveable stage patter. He’s funny, a bit wacky, and he held this crowd rapt for two hours straight.

Thile grew up playing blue grass in bands like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers. His own meandering songs are born of that tradition but also flit from dirty blues to angular free improv to cute, self-deprecating numbers about hapless love affairs that he delivers with doe-eyed impishness and an unfaltering, soft-grained lilt. He laced numbers by Fiona Apple and the Louven Brothers with breezy virtuosity that (mostly) kept to the better side of playful and plain showing off.

But Thile’s recent preoccupation is Bach, and this he does with no frills or fancy work. His latest album is music solo music for violin, which being tuned the same as a mandolin he can play note-for-note. His visual delivery takes some getting used to. He ducked and dived to the contours of the counterpoint, almost miming the musical drama and blissing out to the spiciest harmonies. It induced some initial sniggers from the audience, but comedy Bach this was not. Close your eyes and Thile’s phrasing made real sense. His articulation was impeccable, his sense of line deeply felt. The dance movements moved like real dances but he never sacrificed precision for swing. “The B minor Partita, like everything Bach wrote, is completely rad,” he declared by way of introducing the work, and sure enough it induced the crowd’s heartiest whoops of the night.