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Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, is inspired by some nifty mandolin playing

July 15, 2008

As I’m currently trying to teach myself the mandolin I seized the opportunity last night to see Chris Thile (fastest mandolin player in the West) and his Bluegrass band, the Punch Brothers, at London’s Arts Theatre.

Thile is a slightly kooky-looking version of Jude Law, but with talent and charm. Observing his left hand cover the strings is like watching old Heifetz videos – you barely see the fingers move, it’s done with such grace and ease.

I was lucky enough to interview Thile for a forthcoming article about converting from violin to mandolin and he explained how he uses violin repertoire such as the Bach sonatas and partitas and Barber’s Violin Concerto to hone his technique. So, apart from his phenomenal virtuosity, it wasn’t surprising to hear the classical influences in his four-movement composition, ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ Concerto, which ranged from Shostakovich to Reich, with a little Ligeti thrown in. It was a beautiful piece, well structured and intricately scored in its combinations of mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass and fiddle, interspersed with Thile’s wistful, lovelorn vocal.

But the group’s roots are Bluegrass, a fact Thile doesn’t let them forget: when a mobile phone went off during the concerto he alerted us that it was the ‘Bluegrass police’, apologised for the preceding chromaticism and promised to return to ‘the three good chords’ of Bluegrass. And indeed the band went out on a pure Bluegrass high with ‘Ninety-nine years and one dark day’, the cheery story of a guy who’s in prison for life for shooting his wife with a 44.

A revelation for me was the amplification: the five of them huddled around two microphones and moved in and out to balance themselves. This heightened the sense of chamber music and intimacy and the resulting sound was beautifully blended and warm. The microphones must have been pretty good though, as they were able to pick up the bass player, Greg Garrison, resoundingly from over two metres away, and Gabe Witcher’s fiddle really sounded like a violin. In my band I have a constant battle with sound guys trying to stick reverb on my output so I felt very envious – as I was of Thile’s technique. I think it’s time for me to get my Bach out.

The band has another few gigs in the UK and is then back to the US at the end of July. For tour dates see:
http://punchbrothers.com/index.php?option=com_gigcal&Itemid=30

My interview with Thile will appear in the October issue.

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