Surely a highlight of IBMA week for me so far was the showcase performance last night from Chris Thile & How To Grow A Band. (more photos here)
Regular readers of Bluegrass Today will have noted that I have expressed great enthusiasm for the new Thile CD, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, and for Thile’s and banjo player Noam Pikelny’s musicianship demonstrated therein.
The showcase featured the same group of players who recorded the new project: Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Greg Garrison on bass, and Thile on mandolin and lead vocals. Their short set was wholly drawn from the CD as well, and the material came across as even more polished and authoritatively performed than on the recording. That shouldn’t be – and wasn’t – a surpise, since they spent only a few days preparing to record, and have been out on a mini-tour in support of the CD of late.
They opened with the bluesy, a capella If The Sea Was Whiskey, and then right into the instrumental tour de force, Watch ‚Äòat Breakdown.
I watched the show with Barry Crabtree, banjo player with Wildfire, and we marveled together at the sheer joy of seeing these talented musicians on stage. We both were already familiar with the material from the CD, and had in common a tremendous admiration for the players.
He and I shared a humorous exchange that captured well the degree to which Thile and his crew stand above their peers. As Chris and Noam played the opening melody to O Santo De Polvora in perfect banjo/mandolin unison, Barry flippantly remarked, “I could learn to play that…” – meaning of course, the exact opposite. I made the point that this extremely demanding music wasn’t even stretching them, or taxing them technically, to which Barry laughed and resonded, “Yeah… It’s Pig In A Pen to them!”
They also performed the title track, before concluding with Wayside (Back In Time).
A highlight of the show came when there was no music being played. Chris referenced the fact that he hadn’t been to IBMA in several years, and someone in the audience immediately shouted out, “Welcome back!” The applause that followed showed a good degree of concurrence in the room, something that struck me as especially reassuring.
As Chris suggested in his recent interview on The GrassCast, he hopes to take these musicians (minus Chris Eldridge) out on the road as The Tensions Mountain Boys starting next spring. With Jerry Douglas’ remarks from his Keynote Address perhaps still lingering in the room, it is safe to presume that Thile will put his take on the bluegras tradition he received in front of a great many people this next few years.