Acoustic Music is Alive and Well

Christ Thile

Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers at Red Wing 2015

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”

So opined Chris Thile after the Americana trio I’m With Her finished a short yet moving set in the first half of an incredible three hours of music last evening at the Kennedy Center.  The concert hall’s acoustics were ringing all evening as the sold out crowd not only enjoyed the beautiful harmonies from I’m With Her’s Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, but also the instrumental talents and music-making of mandolinist extraordinaire Thile and the Punch Brothers, along with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers, virtuosi of the banjo and upright bass respectively.

The Kennedy’s Center policy against photography leaves me using old photos from other concerts, but that hardly matters. The music was the focus last evening.

Thile was invited to curate a four-day American Acoustic Music Festival, and Friday evening’s show was clearly the headliner.  The Punch Brothers  opened the first half of the show with a tight set capped by the raucous Rye Whiskey.  I’m With Her followed, with a beautiful set of tunes with interwoven harmonies that belied the fact that this group hasn’t played together for much of this year. Finally Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers closed out the first half of the show by demonstrating the musicality, technique, and compositional skills that made them the trailblazers they are in this genre. (And yes, there were jokes throughout the evening about first playing with people when they were eight.)

 

Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck, performing at Merlefest, 2012

The generous 90-minute second half featured collaborations among all the musicians, and that was when the magic was really made.  Fleck joined the Punch Brothers to kick off that half with one of Bela’s tunes from the influential 1980s album Drive, featuring the first of numerous delicious twin banjo romps between Fleck and the incredible Noam Pikelny.

Punch Brothers

Noam Pikelny

Virtually every tune in the second half was a highlight, beginning with Meyer and Fleck joining the Punch Brothers to play Blue Men of the Sahara, their composition from Strength in Numbers: The Telluride Sessions – an album that helped transform acoustic string music in the 1980s. O’Donovan and Jarousz took turns singing striking leads with the Punch Brothers. Fleck and Gabe Witcher played a wonderful banjo/fiddle duet in honor of Dr. Ralph Stanley – the last of the original triumvirate of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs) – who passed away the night before.  (That led Pikelny to quip that Stanley’s death led to the crash of the entire world economic order.)

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing Roots Music Festival on July 11, 2015

As the night came to a close, Sara Watkins led the entire crew in the first of several encores – John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days. Three tunes – and many more moments of high musicianship and amazing technique later – Chris Thile and his friends left everyone satisfied.

And I’ll leave you with a John Hiatt tune – Crossing Muddy Water – that was played last evening by I’m With Her.  Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

Red Wing III: A Quick Look Back

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing Roots Music Festival on July 11, 2015

After 12 hours of music on Saturday at a sold-out Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Natural Chimneys Park, I’m going to let the photos speak for Day Two of the festival, with only a few quick observations thrown in along the way.

Scott Miller at Red Wing

Scott Miller

  • Scott Miller is a terrific songwriter and a good performer with a great sense of humor.  Is There Room on the Cross for Me? was only one of a number of smartly written songs in his set.  Fiddler Rayna Gellert was also a find.  Check them out.
  • I liked Missy Raines and the New Hip better when they were all acoustic.  The electric guitarist was good, but her music lost some of its subtlety and just became more noise.  That said, she’s still a terrific bass player out flexing her chops and trying new things…and that’s all good.
  • I’m not sure who booked Nikki Lane for a prime 6 p.m. slot on the main stage, but to my ear a little of her honky tonking trash from Nashville went a long way.  She should have been given the 11 p.m. slot and Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen should have taken her slot on the main stage.
Jarosz and O'Donovan

Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing 2015

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins at Red Wing Roots Festival 2015

Aoife O'Donovan at Red Wing

Aoife O’Donovan

Watkins, Jarosz and O'Donovan

Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan at Red Wing 2015

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan – the acoustic super-trio I’m With Herwas the best show of the festival for me (and I suspect for many others as well).  As highly accomplished singers and players, the music was all of a high quality.  They obviously enjoyed playing off each other and blending their beautiful voices into harmonies that could be sweet – or growling – but never dull.  As my friend Oakley said, “Worth the price of the festival.”  Agreed!

Steel Wheels 2015

The Steel Wheels – hosts for the Red Wing Roots Music Festival III

Christ Thile

Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers at Red Wing 2015

Frank Solivan

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen at Red Wing III

The hosts for the weekend – The Steel Wheels – were part of Saturday evening’s headliners, and they didn’t disappoint.  The Steel Wheels put on their typical high energy show, which had the crowd singing along when they weren’t cheering with delight. The Punch Brothers were the true headliners, and Chris Thile and the boys played their usual masterful…and sometimes musically dense…set.  Thile was Thile…all over the place, excited to be there, and musically engaging (when you weren’t scratching your head).  Finally, at 11 p.m., Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen took the last shift of the night, with a tight 50 minute show for those hard core fans who remained.

At Red Wing III

Margaret, Candice, DJB, and Oakley at Red Wing III

These four satisfied-yet-tired festival goers enjoyed two days in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  What could be finer than sitting beneath the grandeur of the Natural Chimneys, listening to three beautiful young ladies play amazing acoustic music.  So on that note, we’ll go out with two tunes by Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan – the first being the John Hiatt tune Crossing Muddy Waters followed by their a capella version of Be My Husband.

Enjoy.

More to come…

DJB

 

 

 

 

60 Lessons From 60 Years

Here are 60 things I’ve learned in my (now) 60 years of life:

1.  Discipline is remembering what you really want.

2.  The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them. (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and others)

3.  Baseball is (much) better than football.

4.  I have been lucky in love.

5.  Few things sound better than a solo acoustic guitar played by Doc Watson (Deep River Blues), Tony Rice, (Shenandoah), or Norman Blake (Church Street Blues). Or, if you want to go next generation, Bryan Sutton (Texas Gales).

6.  Good things can come from bad situations, if you’ll stop wallowing in your sorrow and seek out the good.

Tom Brown 1948

Tom Brown, 1948

7.  I have become my father.  I repeat many of the same stories. (Did you know that I paid more for my last car than for my first house?)  I read funny articles from the newspaper out loud at the dining room table, sometimes to the consternation of my wife and children. I cackle when I laugh. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Southern liberal who believes that government can make our life better, and I have TVA to prove it. I have good-looking legs, even at age 60. I can’t see worth a damn without my glasses and – if you ask Candice – my hearing is suspect. I think Molly Ivins (God rest her soul) and Gail Collins tell more truth in one short newspaper column than any politician tells in a book-length campaign bio. I love to read. Body and Soul and the St. Louis Blues – the only two songs my father could play on the piano – are still among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.  I wish I had more of my father’s faith and compassion, but I still have 30 years to work on that and catch up with him.  I think it is pretty neat, at age 60, to have a father who turns 90 this year – especially when that father is Tom Brown.

8.  I will cry at the movies, so I need to bring a handkerchief.

9.  Neckties are a highly overrated – and in my case an increasingly irrelevant – piece of clothing.

10.  All things considered, I’d rather live in a community full of old buildings.

Downtown Staunton

Downtown Staunton, VA

11.  The movie Selma was not – in my opinion – the “Best Picture” of the year in 2015, but it was the most important.  Everyone (and especially Southerners) should see it. We forget too quickly how difficult it was to attain rights for all, and how much pressure there is, even today, to restrict or even take away those rights.  We are nowhere near a post-racial society.  I grew up in the South in the 1960s. I remember those images on the television. I saw how blacks were treated then.  It was terrible. In some ways, it is still terrible. After seeing Selma, Southerners should also visit the High Church of Doing the Right Thing – otherwise known as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  We can do better.

12.  A colleague gave me this big, 1950s-style ashtray for my office with a quote attributed to Amelia Earhart that says, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” He thought it sounded like me, and I couldn’t agree more.

13.  Stephen Carter, in his book Civility, captured much that is wrong in America today when he said, “The language of the marketplace, the language of wanting, of winning, of simply taking – the language of self – (has supplanted) the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens.”  The best description I’ve read of Libertarians – who epitomize the language of self – is that they’ve politicized the protests of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

14. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”  (Jane Jacobs)  I love old buildings.  I always have.  We grew up in an early 20th century house on Main Street in Murfreesboro, and I loved visiting my Grandmother’s Victorian-era house on Second Avenue in Franklin. Candice and I renovated two old houses in Staunton, where we spent the first half of our married life.  Old houses are especially nice for putting you in a physical and spiritual continuum – there were people in that house before you, and you realize you are just a steward of this place for the next generation.  You can connect with the joys and hardships of those who came before, and you can prepare the house for those who come after.  The best places I’ve been in life have a real connection to the past, and yet feel remarkably livable for the modern world.

WWJJD T-shirt

Andrew’s WWJJD (What Would Jane Jacobs Do?) t-shirt

15.  Education, experiences, and travel trump “things” hands down. When you have a limited amount of money to spend, go for the things that feed the soul and widen your perspective, not the things that will collect dust in your house or take up more space in your garage (or, God forbid, a storage bin).

16.  “Baseball is like church; many attend but few understand.”  (Wes Westrum)

17.  Take the train whenever possible.  It is civilized and, short of walking and riding a bike, it is the most environmentally friendly way to travel. I am writing this right now on a train home from New York City.  In a few minutes I’ll wander back to the cafe car. I ride a train to work every day.  Even with Amtrak working as a second-class citizen when it comes to transportation systems and the Washington Metro suffering breakdowns from lack of funding and maintenance, train travel still beats the alternatives.  Unfortunately, American mass transit is dying. Imagine how well our transportation system could run if people demanded, and politicians funded, train travel.

18. Try to see yourself as others see you.  In more than half of my career, I’ve worked with an executive assistant.  The good ones – who are perceptive and honest – see you in a myriad of situations and understand you in ways that few people do.  One of the best I had the privilege of working with wrote what I took to calling a “Users Guide to DJB” when she left.  It was rather eye-opening to read.

19.  When you buy something you plan to keep for a while (shoes, cars, a home), buy the best quality (not necessarily quantity) you can afford, without overextending your budget.  This approach is why Candice and I tend to keep our (one) car for a decade or more, and why we raised two children in a house with about 1800 square feet. Oh, and you need much less “stuff” than you have.

20.  Those who accept life and their own limitations are likely to find more in life.

21.  The 9th inning of the 5th game of the 2012 NLDS never happened.

22.  If YouTube had existed when I was young, I don’t know if I would be a better guitar player, but I know I would have saved myself a lot of trouble picking up the needle and putting it back (and back, and back) in the grove to try to learn that special lick.

23.  “Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental” is good advice I learned from my Grandmother.  (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown.)  My Grandmother worked hard her entire life, but as you can see in the picture below, my Grandmother was very pretty as a young bride.  Naturally, I inherited my big ears from the Brown side of the family.

Grandmother and Granddaddy Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my Grandmother and Grandfather

24.  Fear isn’t a solid foundation for any healthy relationship.  So why is so much right-wing fundamentalism based on a fear of God’s wrath?  In my experience, She cares for all her children, not just the ones who have drunk the Kool-Aid.

25.  Speaking of fear, Kris Kristofferson hit the nail on the head about hatred of things we don’t understand in Jesus Was a Capricorn. Truer words than “Reckon we’d just nail him up if he came down again” were never spoken. Thanks to Darrell Scott for resurrecting this song (pun intended) on his wonderful Modern Hymns CD.

26. Don’t you just love it that 2015’s Super Bowl (#49) was hailed by many (I’m looking at you Sally Jenkins) as the “best Super Bowl ever.”  What did it feature?  One confirmed concussion, and one probable concussion that the Patriots covered up.  (The Onion had a telling headline:  “Super Bowl Confetti Made Entirely From Shredded Concussion Studies.”) A horrendous arm injury by one player.  Oh, and a fight in the end zone on the next to last play.  Yep, that about sums up the NFL these days.

27.  I think Wondrous Love is just about the best hymn ever – in either version (traditional as heard below from Blue Highway, or reworked for the Episcopal hymnal).  I hope my family remembers – when I’ve gone to my reward – that I want it sung at any service/celebration in my memory.  And remember to sing the last verse (in the Episcopal hymnal) a cappella“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on” sounds incredible when unaccompanied.

28.  The intelligent mind is able to live with paradox.  Such as the paradox of why I’m proud to be a Southerner. (Read this piece from The Bitter Southerner, as it sums up my views on the subject pretty well.) Yes, we have this awful racial history that continues to this day, which I wish our region could overcome. And yes, we have bourbon.

Bulleit bourbon (photo credit: The Adventures of Sarah & Derrick)

(Photo Credit: The Adventures of Sarah and Derrick)

29.  Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.

30.  When you are paying the bill at a restaurant out of your own pocket, tip at the high-end of the scale – 20% – unless the service is awful and the server is rude.  If the service is great, consider giving a bit more.  This is especially true at breakfast.  Many people don’t understand this idea, and it is generally because they have never waited tables.  Waiting tables is very hard work, when done right.  I did it for a year almost 40 years ago, and I still remember the long hours on my feet, the late nights, the times when you do a terrific job and the diners still stiff you.  It never hurts to thank someone, and tipping a bit more than expected is a way of saying thanks.  (The tip up to the norm is payment for service.)  This lesson doesn’t apply in places like Copenhagen, where they pay service staff a living wage. But I think I’ll go to my grave in the U.S. with service staff just scraping by.  Many waiters and waitresses are working two jobs (or more) just to cover basic costs of living.  Tipping at the high-end of the scale is one way I can help them out.  (And while it is a little different, I also recommend tipping street musicians – or buskers – when they are good.)

NOLA Street Musicians

A New Orleans Jazz Trio

31.  If you are going to share a car with someone for more than two weeks, it would be hard to beat Claire as a traveling companion.

Claire and DJB at Glacier

Hiking in Glacier National Park with Claire as part of our two-week cross-country trip in 2014

32.  “I believe that ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth.” (Molly Ivins)

33.  Chris Thile is from another world.  There is no other explanation.

Chris Thile at Merlefest 2012

Chris Thile with the Punch Brothers at Merlefest 2012

34.  The Christian Right is neither.

35.  I definitely “married up.” Candice is very intentional about our life together, as a couple and as a family.  I would probably miss half (or more) of the wonders of our time together, but she has helped me see the little grace notes that make up our life.  Almost thirty-three years later, I would do it all again.

Candice and David celebrate their 32nd anniversary in Copenhagen, March 20, 2014

With Candice, on our 32nd anniversary, in Copenhagen (March 2014)

36.  Visiting all the Major League Baseball stadiums is a worthy bucket list goal for any red-blooded American.  I’m proud  to say I am more than halfway there.

37.  Everyone should have the chance to be surrounded by – and learn from – passionate and talented people at least once in their lifetime. My entire work career has been one when I’ve been surrounded by such individuals.  However, on the personal side, I was lucky in my “earlier life” to sing as part of the Shenandoah Valley musical group Canticum Novum.  I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano as Custer LaRue, who was one of our eight-to-twelve singers (depending on the gig).  Among other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (I should probably add that she sang a solo at Claire and Andrew’s baptismal service!) I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie, Lucy, Kay, Peter, John, and Dick, (plus others) under Carol Taylor’s direction.

38.  We have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”  (Daniel Kahneman)

39.  “Bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?” You should watch the movie Bull Durham twice a year – in February/March, to get your juices going, and in November, to put the season you’ve just lived through in perspective.  Best. Baseball. Movie. Ever.

40.  I still miss my mother every day.

41.  Barbecue is a gift from the gods.  One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to travel to cities all across the U.S.  When I can, I eat at great barbecue places, such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City and The Rendezvous in Memphis.

42.  My father (as he nears age 90) likes to say that growing old is not for wimps.  I’m beginning to worry that I understand what he means.

43.  Nineteen years out of twenty, the lowliest man on a World Series-winning baseball team can give better quotes than the Super Bowl-winning coach.  Baseball players and managers speak with eloquence and  intelligence (even if it is Yogi Berra-type eloquence).  Football players and coaches either talk gibberish (“We used the cover 2 and flex”) or just grunt.

44.  One thing I have not figured out in life is how I happened to have such wonderful, talented, and thoughtful children. It is a mystery. Andrew and Claire taught me so much before they turned 21, and I continue to learn life lessons from them.  I feel blessed and humbled every day.

Andrew and Claire's 21st Birthday

Andrew and Claire’s 21st Birthday

45.  There are many things said in churches that I find hard to believe.  What I do believe is that love is more important than doctrine.

46.  World War II was shorter than the NBA playoffs.

47.  I was fortunate to grow up in a town where I could walk or bike to school, church, the grocery store, and my job.  It was a great way to live as a child.  I have since lived in three towns that were compact, walkable (or had great transit), and human-scaled. My children can get around major cities all over the world because they learned to walk, bike or take the bus and train here in Washington. I feel we have given them a great perspective on how to live in community.

48. When someone needs help – a word, a card, a lift, a meal, a changed tire – try to be there for them. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of each of these things, and I can tell you how much they mean to both the giver and the receiver.

49.  “Cowardice is easy. Courage is hard.” (Ron Johnson, Missouri Highway Patrol, after his work in Ferguson)

50.  “There is no substitute for excellence – not even success.”  (Thomas Boswell)

51.  There is no crying in baseball.  Oh, and there should never be a pitch clock.

52.  It is wonderful when your children take up your interests.  I have always loved photography and music.  So I was thrilled when Claire showed a real talent for photography (especially black and white) and Andrew likewise showed a talent for music.  We do our job as parents when we open up the world’s possibilities to our children.  I simply count myself lucky that among their many talents are two that I can understand and appreciate.

Lake at Mohonk Mountain House by Claire

The Lake at Mohonk Mountain House (Photo credit: Claire Brown)

53.  I have been loved by some wonderful people. All I can say is thank you.

54.  Never underestimate the impact one person can have on the world. Dean Smith, the famous basketball coach for the North Carolina Tarheels, died last month. One of the most amazing things I heard about Coach Smith through the many tributes that poured out in early February is that the Baptist Church where he worshiped and that shaped his advocacy for minorities was booted out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 for licensing a gay man to minister.  (Being booted out of today’s SBC wins “bonus points” from me, and I grew up a Southern Baptist.) His former pastor said of Smith, “He was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church – being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation.”  I also read a great appreciation in the Washington Post by John Feinstein.  After asking Smith to provide more details about his helping to desegregate lunch counters in North Carolina in the 1950s, Feinstein recounted that Smith asked him who told him the story.  Told that it was his pastor, Smith responded that he “wished he hadn’t done that.”  Feinstein replied that Smith should be proud of that work. And here was the kicker: Feinstein wrote, “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.’” 

55.  There have been times when I did not get something I thought I really wanted.  But in most cases, I found something better.  (Or, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, “You can’t always get what you want…but you just might find, you get what you need.”)

56.  I have always enjoyed a wide variety of music.  I’ve been privileged to play bluegrass and to sing Josquin des Prez…and lots of things in-between.  I subscribe to the words of the immortal Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music.  Good music and the other kind.”

57.  I am fine with the fact that not everyone wants to hear my opinion and is eager to know what’s on my mind. Opinions are like noses…everyone has them.

58.  I believe in the Church of Baseball.

59.  A  few years ago I became intentional about saying “thank you” to someone every day.  It is one of the smartest things I ever did. Thank you.

60.  Savor every moment. It passes faster than you can ever imagine.

(With hopefully much) More to come…

DJB

The Sound of Genius

I opened the paper this morning to the wondrous news that Chris Thile – celebrated l’enfant terrible of the mandolin – was one of the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grants.

You gotta love it when a kid who starts off in bluegrass ends up being recognized as a MacArthur “genius” – the popular term for the winners of the $500,000, no strings attached annual award.

Here’s the description from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Chris Thile is a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. Although rooted in the rhythmic structure of bluegrass, his early pieces for his long-time trio, Nickel Creek, have the improvisatory feel of jazz; his current ensemble, Punch Brothers, evokes the ethos of classical chamber music even while adhering to the traditional instrumentation of the bluegrass quintet. The Blind Leaving the Blind, a song suite on Punch Brothers’ first album (Punch, 2008), extends the sound of bluegrass in its range of harmonies and polyrhythms. Thile further explores the symphonic dimensions of the string quintet in both the improvised and elaborately composed works of Antifogmatic (2010). Among his many collaborations, Thile has expanded the reach of the mandolin in Ad Astra per Alas Porci (2009), a three-movement mandolin concerto, and in his solo mandolin interpretations of Bach’s works for violin, which showcase his technical mastery and fluid, soulful phrasing. Through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Chris Thile studied music at Murray State University (1998–1999). From 1989 to 2007, he was a member of the trio Nickel Creek, and in 2006 he formed Punch Brothers. His additional recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) with Nickel Creek; Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) with Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).

That’s all true.  But for those of us who have been listening to this phenom for a decade or two, he’s simply otherworldly.

There are many musicians who paved the way for Thile’s genius to bloom. His current band, Punch Brothers, plays with the same configuration of instruments – with the mandolin at the center – that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, established in the 1940s. Traditional music virtuosi such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs showed that roots music could include branches outside the strict confines of bluegrass and folk.  Monster string players such as Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor demonstrated that traditional musicians can play with a speed, tone, touch, and musicality that raised the bar in the acoustic music world to levels once thought to belong only in the jazz and classical genres. Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush bring a physicality to their playing that helped shaped this key aspect of Thile’s music. Composer and bandleader David Grisman almost single-handedly took the traditional string band instrumentation and showed how gifted players could play a wonderful blend of jazz, world, bluegrass, and classical.

Thile combines all of these talents, and more, in one incredibly energetic and creative individual.  Take, for instance, the Nickel Creek live classic, The Fox. In this version from a Merlefest performance that Claire and I saw a few years ago, Thile and his band mates take off on a traditional tune, and then find all sorts of ways to venture out into other music and genres, before meandering back to the original.

But Thile doesn’t have to be in a band setting to shine.  Listen to this wonderful Bach E Major Prelude, which Thile takes to the mandolin:

Jerry Douglas’ We Hide and Seek is a tune known to most fans of Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.  However, in this trio version with Thile on the mandolin, you get more space to hear (and see) Thile’s work with one of the masters of Nashville.

Why not show TWO MacArthur genius grant recipients together?  Because, the talent here might just blow you away.  But if you are game, take a look at Thile and double bassist Edgar Meyer playing Farmer and the Duck.

This could go on for days.  So to wrap things up, let’s end with a fun tune by the Punch Brothers, Brakeman’s Blues, where Thile gets to channel his inner Jimmie Rodgers.

Congratulations, Chris Thile.  Well deserved!  And congratulations to the folks at the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius in some of the hidden places of American life and music.

More to come…

DJB

All Ages Welcome – Merlefest 25

Merlefest has a multi-generational flavor built into its DNA that was on full display Saturday.

The festival’s patriarch, Doc Watson (top of post), took his turn at age 89 on the main stage that bears his name and that of his late son Merle for an hour-long love-fest by musical friends who have played with him since the 1970s.  As soon as the last chorus of Will the Circle Be Unbroken rang out, the Snyder Family Band – featuring 16-year-old Zeb Snyder playing some amazing flatpicked guitar along with his 13-year-old fiddle playing sister Samantha – took over on the cabin stage to showcase that roots music is in good hands with the new generation.  It was like that all day.

I was dragging when I arrived on Saturday morning, but found a pick-me-up that’s better than coffee:  Jeffrey Broussard & The Creole Cowboys.

Playing the pumping accordion that’s the heart and soul of Creole music, Broussard and the Cowboys rocked out on traditional Zydeco tunes such as Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You (described by the bassist as, “Don’t take no wooden nickles”) and Baby Please Don’t Go Down to New Orleans (Cause I Love You So).

19-year-old Sierra Hull (above) with her band Highway 111 was next up at the Creekside Stage, which was Mandolin Central on Saturday afternoon.  Hull is a prodigious talent who is growing into maturity as an artist and a band leader.  They featured songs from her most recent release Daybreak and demonstrated why she was the first bluegrass musician to get Boston’s Berklee College of Music’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.  Hull also made everyone in the audience feel old when she introduced the bass player as “The only member of the band old enough to rent a car.”  Ouch!  What the hell was I doing at age 19!

Bluegrass veteran Claire Lynch (above and below with The Claire Lynch Band) took the main stage mid-afternoon and demonstrated right off the bat why she’s such a festival favorite.  Playing with her band – which includes two previous winners of Merlefest instrumental contests plus premier bassist Mark Schatz – she showed what a mixture of prodigious young talent and exceptional experience can produce.  May Be a Little Bit Tight Tonight was the perfect kick-off number for a sharp 45-minute set.  Of course it helps when you have one of the best voices in bluegrass, country, and roots music at your core.

Fans and performers are in close proximity at Merlefest. You can be walking through the instrument tent and see banjo phenom Noam Pikelny (below) signing an instrument, or be face-to-face with two of the most influential mandolin players – and musicians – of their generation, Sam Bush (middle below) and Chris Thile (third photo below), as they prepare to take the stage.  There’s great accessibility to these talented musicians, even in the middle of 80,000 people.

Following Lynch’s set, I had to make some choices, thanks to the amazing amount of talent at Merlefest and the limited number of hours in the day.  I caught the opening song of Tony Rice’s set on the Watson Stage, but quickly left to return to the Creekside for one of my favorite events of Merlefest:  Mando Mania (photos below).  For those who can’t get enough mandolin, this is your afternoon!

Hosted by North Carolina mandolin player Tony Williamson, this year’s Mando Mania featured Joe Walsh of the Gibson Brothers, Chris Thile (above) of the Punch Brothers (and Nickel Creek fame), Sam Bush, and Sierra Hull.  The set basically consists of one of the players suggesting a tune, and then everyone swapping solos for a couple of times through the lineup.  All are monster mandolin players. Chris Thile, however, is from another planet.

This year, the end of Mando Mania was scheduled against the beginning of my other “can’t miss” event: the Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks.  And they are on opposite sides of the college where the festival is held.  Up a BIG hill.  Yikes!  I had to run.

Begun a few years ago when James Nash of The Waybacks wanted to play an hour of Led Zeppelin tunes “just to annoy some folks,” the Hillside Album Hour (named after the stage where it is held – see crowd at this year’s event above) has become its own phenomenon.  Nash selects a classic rock album to cover and asks a variety of guests to join the band.  The name of the album isn’t released prior to the opening chords, but clues are released on Facebook and everyone tries to guess the identity of this year’s featured album.  My last visit to Merlefest was for Sticky Fingers.  It is imperative that you be there for the opening chords, or you’ll miss half the fun.

I made it (and have the t-shirt to prove it), although my knees will never be the same after an hour clinging to the top of the hill trying desperately not to slide down into the patrons below me.  When Nash hit the opening chords of Purple Haze from the Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album (#15 on Rolling Stone’s Best 500 rock albums), the crowd exploded.  At the end of the first tune, Nash said, “Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Your reaction to those opening chords was worth it!”  John Cowan singing Hey Joe was a highlight for me, but the entire show was terrific.

The evening sets began with Doc and friends – with the friends carrying the musical load.  Cowan again hit a musical highlight – one that was very emotional for Doc and everyone else – by singing Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky for Doc and his wife Rosa Lee.  There were more than a few people dabbing at their eyes when Cowan’s beautiful tenor voice sang, “Don’t my baby look the sweetest, when she’s in my arms asleep.”

The Punch Brothers (above) – an amazing group of talented musicians fronted by the other-worldly Chris Thile (below) – were the first of the evening’s two headliners.  Noam Pikelny dead-panned, when introducing the wonderful Jimmie Rodgers tune Brakeman’s Blues, that the job of “Singing Brakeman” was coming back in vogue, with the new economy and all.  At times I’d wonder when these guys were going to find the melody, but just then they would morph into Back in Time and show the rest of us why we should definitely keep our day jobs.

From phenom to phenom…Thile turned the stage over to Derek Trucks and the fabulous Tedeschi Trucks Band.  As was fitting for Merlefest, Susan Tedeschi introduced the blues tune Do As You Please, Get What You Deserve by saying perhaps Merle Watson – who loved the blues – would enjoy this tune.  I know that everyone at Merlefest certainly did.

More to come…

DJB

A Little Bach on the Mandolin

The Fretboard Journal just posted this wonderful video on their Facebook page.  It features mandolin phenom Chris Thile playing the Bach E Major Prelude on his Dudenbostel mandolin.  I found the video compelling not only for the beautiful music but also because of the way it highlights Thile’s amazing right hand pick techniques.

The guy is incredible.  Enjoy.

More to come…

DJB

Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile To Release First CD Together

Double-bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin phenom Chris Thile are set to release their first CD together on September 23rd on Nonesuch Records.  Entitled – appropriately enough – Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile , the new release brings together two of the most amazing instrumentalists of their respective generations of acoustic musicians. 

My friend Scott Gerloff and I had the chance to see Meyer earlier this year when he played in Washington with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.  The show was terrific and Meyer was phenomenal.  We were both slack-jawed.  And I’ve written to countless friends through the years following Nickel Creek concerts with accounts of some amazing piece of musicianship from Thile.  Needless to say I’m looking forward to this collaboration.

The Nonesuch site provides a good background on both musicians:

Throughout a lifetime of performing and composing, Edgar Meyer has turned the double bass into a modern virtuoso instrument that is equally at home in classical music and in the American vernacular. In 1994, Meyer became the first bassist to win the Avery Fisher Prize. He is also a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award and three Grammy Awards. Meyer has found devoted audiences through a vast range of projects, from his own double bass concertos that he continues to perform regularly to recital collaborations with Emanuel Ax and Amy Dorfman and performance and recording projects with artists including Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mike Marshall, and many others. The New Yorker calls him “the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively unchronicled history of his instrument.”

Widely regarded as one of the most interesting and inventive musicians of his generation, mandolinist Chris Thile has elevated his instrument from its origins as a relatively simple folk and bluegrass instrument to the sophistication and brilliance of the finest jazz improvisation and classical performance….As the San Francisco Chronicle asks, “Why didn’t someone think about mixing bluegrass, jazz and classical music together sooner? Chris Thile … is doing it with his new outfit, Punch Brothers, and the result is totally mind-blowing.”

There are a couple of good videos on You Tube of the Meyer/Thile duo.  Check out the one above.

More to come…

DJB