Chris Thile | 02.21.07

"You've just discovered some bluegrass truth, folks: If something exists, it's lonesome."

 

Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis

It's been said that Chris Thile is the rock star of Nickel Creek. His boyish charm, expressive playing style, and penchant for covering modern artists have given credence to this theory. But for St. Louis fans, his performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall may have settled the case.

Chris Thile isn't just a rock star; he's a bona fide bluegrass star. Granted, he may be too hip for purists, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming friends and band mates with the industry's best, including flatpicked guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton, who recently won a Grammy (over Thile) for his performance with folk legend Doc Watson. Nonetheless, Thile's progressive style has to be considered good for a tragically overlooked style of music, as it combines traditional sounds with accessibility to newcomers who, like Thile, grew up in the '80s.

Thile's cover-heavy set sounded nothing short of fantastic, though having a world-class backing band and a sold-out hall that boasts "perfect acoustics" can be quite an advantage. The quaint Hall (arguably St. Louis' home of high art) provided an ideal setting for the quintet of stringed instruments on stage. And while Thile was fittingly the most prominent musician, he had no problem sharing the spotlight with "the How to Grow a Band," often stepping back and watching in awe at the abilities of his experienced peers. Gabe Wincher's fiddle and Noam Pikelny's banjo were featured on "Song for a Young Queen" and "Speedbump," and Greg Garrison's bass playing was solid throughout the group's hour-and-a-half set.

It was Thile's own experience, however, that allowed him to keep pace. Already having ten albums under his belt (five solo and five with Nickel Creek), the 26-year-old mandolinist stole the show on Gillian Wench's "Wayside" and the new "Blind Leaving the Blind," which Thile described as the first of four eventual movements. He also handled lead vocals for the evening, combining with his band for restrained harmonies on "I'm Nowhere and You're Everything," louder ones for the closing "Brakeman's Blues," (a Jimmie Rodgers cover), and even employing Wincher for lead vocals on the Band's "Ophelia," easily a crowd favorite.

Musical talent notwithstanding, it was Thile's charisma that captivated the crowd. While generally appearing carefree and nonchalant, he could instantly slip into "the zone" and make faces uglier than the jock from Napoleon Dynamite during his rock star solos (such as on the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"), then just as quickly break into a grin and begin playfully teasing the crowd. The articulate Thile seemed to enjoy the between-song banter, feigning hurt feelings at the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry, marveling at the near-perfection of the Hall, and, in a humorous display of band chemistry, killing time by bluffing an entire conversation about lonesome trees as the band retuned their instruments ("that tree is the lonesomest," he declared to Sutton, then turned to the crowd and added "that's the superlative form of ‘lonesome,' folks").

Thile and Co. seemed equally adept at slower-paced ballads (the beautiful "Stay Away" and "You're an Angel, and I'm Gonna Cry," before which Thile jokingly referred to the song's writer as "delusional"), and feisty rockers, such as the Strokes' "Heart in a Cage" and an extended encore romp of Radiohead's "Morning Bell."

"You've just discovered some bluegrass truth, folks: If something exists, it's lonesome," Thile smirked at one point. That may be true, but this evening's crowd seemed more inclined to agree with his earlier statement: "This is reeeeaaally fun tonight!" Indeed it was, Chris. | Aaron Brummet

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