Do you believe in too much of one good thing?
Generally, I don’t. I’m a fan of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream and double features. But in music, a double dose of deliciousness can be dangerous. The Three Tenors is two too many, and how many “supergroups” were ever better than a bunch of guys who met in their hometown, whether Liverpool or Detroit?
On Live Duets, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile boil this problem down to bare essentials. Each is a monster on the same instrument—the mandolin. Each is a virtuoso who plays across multiple styles but with a basic grounding in bluegrass, which is to the mandolin as jazz is to the saxophone. First in festival performances, then in 2003’s studio album Into the Cauldron, and now with this live document, Marshall and Thile do their darnedest to play in a complementary way, simultaneously not getting in each other’s way and not squelching their God-given obligation to wail.
So, do they solve the problem?
Mostly. And they do it a bunch of different ways. On the tracks that are true mandolin duets, such as the opener “Shoulda Seen It Coming’”, they play in delicate harmony and counterpoint that never threatens to overwhelm. Like two pieces of lace overlaid, the two mandolins can seem fussy, but these two experts know how to stay out of each other’s way. Marshall’s solo is simple and deep, then Thile scorches up the neck, after which they play the theme like Arthur Rubenstein’s two hands.
On other tracks, however, one player shifts to a deeper instrument. On Thile’s “I’d Go Back If I Could”, Marshall plays the mandocello, laying down a snappy bass line throughout. “Hualalai” finds Marshall playing the viola-like mandola as well, giving the duet a full range of sound across several registers, with Thile quick-stepping on the high end like a wide receiver on the sideline. I’m guessing this technique helps to simulate the concert setting of there recordings too—as you can better hear the distinction or location of the two players before.
Nowhere is this plainer than on the duo’s read of a J.S. Bach violin partita, where Marshall plays a fully-realized harmony part on mandocello against Thile’s graceful and swinging baroque melody line. You’ve rarely heard a straight classical reading given this much joy and bounce. Somehow, without changing a note, they shoehorn a sweet dose of Flatt and Scruggs into a powdered wig.
That said, there are stretches here where the delicate delight of the two mandolins threatens to float away on a cloud. As beguiling as the playing is on Marshall’s “Joy Ride in a Toy Car/Hey Ho”, it lacks oomph coming from your speakers or earphones. Even in the second, blisteringly paced half, the music feels incomplete with the tub-thump of a bass or the elastic rip of fiddle. These guys jam with remarkable abandon, however, and you know it would be quite different were they playing right before your eyes.
One of the tastiest morsels here is “Sedi Donka” a traditional Bulgarian tune that prompts some killer solos and ghost-perfect unison playing. This song, with a melody sufficiently distinct from the Celtic and American stuff we’re used to hearing for mandolin, starts with a syncopated chucked rhythm and just barrels down the tracks. As a surely different color, it’s arguably what the whole album could have used more of. Compared to the closer “Tanja” or the atmospheric but slim “The Only Way Out”, this tune bristles with heat. Even better, I think, is the blues-bent if slower “Carpathian Mt. Breakdown”—a relaxed ramble of musical conversation that you never want to end.
I have no doubt that a conversation is one of the metaphors that Chris Thile and Mike Marshall would use for their playing. In their own bands—particularly with Thile and his regular group, Nickel Creek—there is less time and space in the arrangements for a good long chat. So Live Duets seems like it is mostly a joy all around, even if it could have used a few more arguments or belly laughs.