This post is a contribution from David Hollender, Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Dave has been a member of the ensemble department for several years, and teaching upright bass, but now also teaches banjo for students following the Acoustic String Principal, where banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar or fiddle players can pursue a degree at Berklee.
Chris Thile and How To Grow A Band visited Berklee College of Music Thursday for a clinic hosted by the String Department. Chris, Bryan Sutton, Greg Garrison, Noam Pikelny, and Gabe Witcher spent an hour playing for students and taking questions. Berklee mandolin teacher, John McGann introduced the band and they opened the clinic by playing two tunes from their new Sugar Hill CD – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground and The Beekeeper.
Chris introduced the players and explained what drew him to choose these players. He cited their musical range, the chemistry that they felt, and the fact that they are musicians who can both improvise and read. This led to discussion of a new extended, through-composed work that the band has started playing. He described the concept and compositional process behind the new work, which consists mainly of written instrumental parts, along with some transitions into vocal songs, sections for improvised solos, and some sections that are essentially free improvisation. They played the first movement for the students.
Matt Glaser, Chair of the String Department asked if they still like to play straight ahead bluegrass. They graciously and bravely obliged this writer’s request to perform a standard bluegrass song that they had never played together as a unit so the students could see how they steer things on the fly. They chose Flatt and Scruggs’, My Little Girl In Tennessee. After a quick huddle to decide who would take which parts Noam kicked it off with drive and tone that would make Earl proud. Chris sang the leads and jumped up to the tenor on the choruses along with Sutton and Witcher. At the end Chris teased the audience and the band by tagging the chorus about five times, which was four more than anyone expected, but these players’ big ears and quick reactions caught it without a hitch. If anyone was worried that the band had lost touch with their bluegrass roots their concern was completely erased by what they heard.
It should be noted that the performance was done completely acoustically, which really showed off the band’s dynamic range, the strength of their voices and the beauty of their instrumental tone.
Chris and the band will play play Friday night at the 22nd Annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, which runs from Friday through Sunday afternoon at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham, MA. Last year’s festival won Event of the Year honors for the Boston Bluegrass Union at the IBMA convention last fall.
Along with Chris Thile this year is an outstanding lineup including:
Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands (Sat)
The Infamous Stringdusters (Sat)
The Gibson Brothers (Fri)
Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass (Sat)
Kenny and Amanda Smith Band
Special Consensus (Sat)