Concert Review: The Knights with Chris Thile @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 10/25/2023
Is there anything Chris Thile cannot do, musically speaking? The Grammy award-winning mandolin virtuoso, singer-songwriter, founding member of pop country bluegrass group Nickel Creek, founding member of progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, host of public radio’s “Live from Here” (formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion”), and budding standup comedian is adept at just about any musical genre you care to mention, as he proved as a special guest of The Knights at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Wednesday night.
The Knights are a force to be reckoned with themselves, bringing a youthful dynamism to the sometimes-staid world of classical music. The small (on this night, 28 pieces) chamber orchestra is the brainchild of brothers and artistic directors Eric (conductor) and Colin (violin, concertmaster) Jacobsen, who bring a breezy enthusiasm and eclectic choice of repertoire to the concert stage.
The concert started with Bach, Thile’s mandolin weaving and dovetailing beautifully between the mathematical precision of the strings. Then, a delicate song by Caroline Shaw featured Thile’s keening vocals drifting in and out of the gossamer arrangement.
The Knights then took center stage for a sprightly arrangement of Dvorak’s string quartet No. 12, adding some modern dissonance, followed by “Sheriff’s Friend”, a buoyant fiddle-driven piece by Colin Jacobsen.
After a brief intermission, Thile came out and introduced his piece “Attention!”—a truly strange and unique piece of music. It’s pretty hard to describe, but here goes: a prog bluegrass classical concept opera spoken word comedy skit song cycle about his band Nickel Creek trying to impress and get in the good graces of the music buyer for Starbucks at the 2005 NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers) convention in San Diego. Got that? OK, good.
If you think that’s kinda niche and that you “had to be there,” well, amazingly, I was.
In another life, I was the music buyer for a national chain and was actually at that convention. and remember seeing Nickel Creek. Sadly, I was not on the guest list for the roof garden party referenced in the piece where the young and impressionable Thile, encouraged by his manager, engaged in a “dueling banjos” like face-off with harmonica player John Popper of Blues Traveler (played by Colin Jacobsen on violin!) Then, although mortified, he was cajoled into playing the Princess Leia theme from Star Wars directly to Carrie Fisher, who was also present at the party. Thile perfectly encapsulates the plight of a young musician who knows that he has been thrust into a totally absurd and surreal situation but is still desperately trying his best to advance his career whilst retaining his dignity. It’s absolutely hilarious, and the music is mind-bendingly adventurous; imagine Frank Zappa meets Stephen Sondheim.
So, is there anything Chris Thile cannot do, musically speaking?
Nah, I don’t think so.
Note: Nickel Creek plays Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Friday, March 22, 2024.
- Vivace from Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor (Bach, transcribed Thile)
- And So (Shaw)
- “Toward America” – String Quartet No. 12 in F major (Dvorak, arranged Stewart)
- Sheriff’s Freud (C. Jacobsen)
Attention! (A narrative song cycle for extroverted mandolinist and orchestra) (Thile):
- Lord Starbucks
- The Rooftop
- Carrie Freaking Fisher
- Allegro from Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor (Bach, transcribed Thile)