Brance and I had the opportunity this past weekend to catch Chris Thile and his How To Grow A Band show in concert at The Jefferson Center in Roanoke, VA. As the band name implies, they are on tour in support of Chris’ new release, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground.
Band members were the same as the CD: Thile on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Greg Garrison on bass. Chris handled the great bulk of the lead singing, and all band members sang harmony parts.
Over the course of the program, they performed each of the 14 songs from the CD, along with a few of Chris’ from other projects, and ones chosen to highlight the various members of the band. For instance, Gabe Witcher sang his bluesy version of The Band’s Ophelia, and Chris Eldridge offered up a grassy Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler.
The primary focus, of course, was on Thile and the songs from the new release. In addition to being perhaps the most technically gifted mandolinist to ever play American string music, he is also a natural entertainer and a gutsy vocalist. And by gutsy, I don’t mean a gritty, smoky-voiced singer – I mean an artist willing to take tremendous risks in styling the vocals for a song.
It takes a lot of confidence, and a sense of adventure to hop back and forth between natural and falsetto voice with such abandon, and Thile seems to have what it takes. It also takes an ability to find humor in the effort, and that part of watching this stellar young artist is as enjoyable for me as are his striking feats of fretboard acrobatics.
The song choices, and the arrangements were adventurous as well. Some of our readers could get stuck on the classic, “but that’s not bluegrass” mantra, and it would be a great shame if they did. This is sparkling, dynamic and powerful music. If large doses would be too rich for your palate, consider having a taste at the very least.
To conclude their three song encore, the band blistered Manchicken, a tune from Noam Pikelny’s In The Maze CD. As they were trading improv lines towards the end of the tune, Noam slipped back into the hook that brings the band into the main theme of Watch ‘at Breakdown, the tune that opens the new Thile CD. They reprised the ending of that tune, which had closed the first set, to wrap up the evening’s festivities.
If this show visits your part of the world, I would encourage you to make the effort to see it. Unless you are annoyed by the notion of a bluegrass band (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass) playing music that might not suit Bill Monroe, I can’t imagine that their performance could fail to thrill and entertain you.
After the show, I spoke with bass player (and tour manager) Greg Garrison, who indicated that there aren’t many stops left on this current, brief tour – just the rest of this week before Chris prepares for a trip to the UK – but that more dates will be added in December. Another string of shows with this lineup is also in the works for February of 2007.
Hyperbole warning! Watching them on Saturday left me thinking that this was what it must have been like to have witnessed early performances by artists who truly redefined how a genre was conceived. Think Flatt & Scruggs when they were at the peak in the 1950s – or even jazz innovators like Charlie Parker when he took virtuosic young experimenters to the stage a few years earlier.
I haven’t been this excited by a stage show in quite some time. Hat’s off to Chris Thile and How To Grow A Band.