Chris Thile + Brad Mehldau

[3 November 2008]

By Vijith Assar

(Le) Poisson Rouge isn’t really coherent in its muted elitism—it’s a small underground box in downtown Manhattan with a fish tank hanging askew in the foyer and an astonishingly diverse lineup, Dan Deacon one night and Tuvan throat singers the next—but I’m still feeling a little out of place here. The venue definitely has a sense of humor, at least: Small pamphlets sitting on each table extol the virtues of the venue’s membership program, in which the $2K “Big Fish” package buys you “exclusive card-access to fully-stocked VIP Port-a-Potty” and “Red carpet private entrance through the garbage alley.” $10K for the “Founding Fish” level gets you a “1-hr private cello, Guitar Hero, piano, or violin lesson.” All this makes me feel militantly proletarian; those are big numbers, and I can’t believe there are people who actually do this sort of thing. At the bottom of the page, there’s a package which appears to be free, but it’s by invitation only. And, more importantly, called “Chum.” Gosh, thanks guys.

Sitting around waiting for the show to start, I notice that the menu is just as scatterbrained. It’s my first time here, so I’m having trouble gauging the clientele, but it’s enough to make me feel like I don’t belong: $225 for a bottle of Southern Comfort, $300 for Cutty Sark, and $500 for Patron. And although I don’t know how to price out clams and oysters nearly as well as hard liquor, they’re all still at least one zero above my drunken munchies budget. There are tater tots and $5 PBJs for the Joe the Writers among us, but I’m not sure whether to be mildly offended—in the context, it almost seems like that’s one of the jokes.

Tickets, likewise, are expensive, but that one doesn’t really grind my gears as much. See, the stiff entry fee might overshoot by quite a bit, but the leftovers will buy you karma: Proceeds go to the Obama campaign—after all, outspending the Republicans by a factor of three has to come from somewhere. So here we are, just a few blocks from where Lehman Brothers officially launched the downfall of Western Civilization a few weeks ago, trying to rally the elites who still have hearts. The room is well under capacity, though, which is troublesome both politically and culturally—even if these performers are chronically underappreciated, shouldn’t the “for a good cause” part compensate? Just before opener Brad Mehldau takes the stage, they announce that they’ve raised ten grand from the entry fees alone and will be accepting additional donations throughout the show. I have no idea whether that’s supposed to be enough. It’s just one “Founding Fish” package, after all.

Brad Mehldau’s set is extremely structured: It’s a rare semi-classical performance which pairs his favorite Brahms pieces with the original compositions they inspired. It’s very interesting—kind of like taking a look right into the artist’s head, or getting a huge mixtape from someone you admire—but, to be honest, a little lethargic. His totally hyperactive arrangement of “Martha My Dear” is the only thing that really bounces.

Comparatively, Chris Thile takes the stage like a nukular bomb. “How’s your mind?” he asks with a supportive nod in Mehldau’s direction, “Blown?” Not quite, but it’s about to be.

Thile’s set includes both the expected folk tunes, originals, and again, a sprinkling of the classical pieces that he found influential. It’s an uphill battle for him, much more so than it was for Mehldau: The mandolin isn’t typically well-suited to solo arrangements. Thile gets around this in two ways: First, by choosing pieces which translate to the pitch range of his instrument without compromise. He plays a lot of Bach partitas for solo violin, complete with a detailed explanation of why he’s playing one particular set of eight notes straight instead of with French dots, and a White Stripes cover on which he literally runs out of frets. With a performance like this, I realize, the choice of material is half the battle.

And, um, secondly by being a totally remarkable, world-class, legend-class musician. I’ve seen Thile twice before (once each with his two old bands), and the most charmingly I’m-from-suburbia part is that he always seemed to be totally unaware of just how great his performances are. At times, he’d be playing faster and more precisely than I might have thought possible on such an excruciatingly small fretboard, having worked out brilliant arrangements for the band, and all the while would be cracking jokes with his bandmates or relaxing with a drink in between runs or otherwise failing to pay attention to himself. No matter how little he seemed to worry about it, it always came out phenomenal.

It’s a little different this time around. Not that he stumbles, really, but rather that the huge grin that occasionally takes over his face seems to indicate that he realizes just how awesome he is. It mostly turns up for the partitas. Maybe it’s the weight of the canon, the realization that translating them to the mandolin is quite a feat of arrangement; it’s pretty easy to look past things you improvise, but hundreds of years of music history is harder to ignore. Or maybe he just gets distracted when he also has to sing. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure why I like it myself—am I reacting to the performer or the composer? Thile is usually both, and it seems like giving up control of one has freed his head, if not his fingers.

His translated originals seem much more reserved as a result. The downtrodden “Stay Away” wasn’t part of the heartbroken multi-movement suite he wrote last year as his wife was divorcing him, but it might have been a prelude. Performed without the Punch Brothers, it has tenderness even beyond the recorded version. If lines like “You are the devil / Stay away from me” may be a bit hyperbolic even for the likes of Dick Cheney, Thile still drops a dedication of sorts: “To hell with my freedom,” he sings, “if it don’t come for free.” Big. Pause. For emphasis. And then before you know it, he’s gone.

Both performers have been relatively light on politics all evening—“I’d be preaching to the converted,” Mehldau said—but Thile quickly reappears for a pointed coda. “I apologize in advance for how cheesily appropriate this is,” he sighs as he launches into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” It may be contrived, but it’s still interesting, largely because his bursts of flash-flood picking are as close to Hendrix psychedelics as you can get on a primitive bluegrass instrument. The national consciousness could use something as emblematic as the Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” right about now; this isn’t it, but it’s a start. “Masters of War” ends with the line “All the money you made will not buy back your soul,” delivered here with the chilling seriousness of a gospel choir. But if there’s any justice in the world—debatable at this point, given that I’m still waiting for my tater tots—then the Patron crowd around me is making sure that the coffers in the back are still filling up. Damned if we aren’t going to try.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chris-thile-brad-mehldau/