Friday, January 26, 2007

Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, Page Auditorium, 1/25/07

The Pat Metheny of the mandolin

At long last, another post.

There are certain dangers to being a full-time college student and active journalist while also writing a blog; for example, say you are do work until 5 a.m., get up at 9 that morning, then go to a somewhat sleepy concert that night. Guess what happens?

So I didn't actually fall asleep. To be fair, bassist/composer Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile weren't that bad, but they could have been better. The numerous invocations of Jerry Douglas have me listening to that, and suffice it to say his upbeat bluegrass would not have nearly put me to sleep. This was no bluegrass concert, using material mostly composed by the performers or by some old songwriter named, like, Bach or something. There's nothing wrong with that either, and both performers are brilliant. Set I was okay; Set II actually had some life to it!

I never liked Nickel Creek that much, and I tend to blame Thile, the ex-leader of that band. He's pretty much the Pat Metheny of bluegrass; like Metheny, he's put in a category (jazz and bluegrass, respectively) that isn't really big enough to contain him; he has great crossover appeal with the pop world, and he's a prodigy on his instrument, and his tone and note choice aren't dissimilar. That's what the trouble is--he doesn't really know how to use it, so he can reel off a dazzling, bebop riff when he likes--but so what? Unfortunately, he often comes across as shallow. The best tunes were those where Meyer dominated and really dug in, providing an earthiness Thile lacks, or the Bach arrangments, with each man taking the part written for one of two manuals on the organ. With only two musicians and only 12 strings (8, really) it's hard to achieve too much harmonic complexity, so when the groove quotient plummets, the whole damn thing suffers for it.

Thile also has a propensity for pretty, such as on "Cassandra's Waltz," a saccharine, listless little ballad sandwiched in the middle of the first set, but when he employs his pastoralism better, like the excellent chordal work on the third tune of set II, it is simply beautiful. As an occasional mandolin dabbler, that seems more impressive to me than the lightning-fast stuff.

I can't say enough about Meyer, who in addition to his bona fides as a classical musician, is a creative and original improviser, walks a convincing line and even drives a solid boogaloo to make Lee Morgan proud, as on second-set opener "This Is the Pig" (the damn cute titles enfuriate me, but whatever). When Thile threatened to float away, Meyer anchored him, and could toe-to-toe, or rather, note-to-note, with him too, no small feat.

The patter was great, sometimes even threatening to overshadow the music (a compliment to the patter as much as it is a bad sign about the tunes). It helped that the young, tall, tousled and ironically suit-clad Thile, with tiny mandolin, presented a hilarious contrast to Meyer, whose physique resembled his bass and whose rumped aspect seemed better fit to a mid-level IT executive. Bonus points for references to the Duke basketball many people were missing for the show (why do these guys back so many in? Is it because Thile is supposed to be so handsome? I don't know, man ...).

Final judgment: Good--75 to 80 percent, maybe--but not worth the standing ovation it received (I remained comfortably seated during that). And I'm not rushing out to buy any Nickel Creek albums, either. But worth the $5 ticket? By a long shot.