Mandolin virtuoso, composer and singer-songwriter Chris Thile is just as comfortable as a soloist as he is in a band setting, and his performance at the Brown County Music Center this past weekend was fantastic proof of that.
The artist is also known as a member of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.
In a program that relied on both the excitement of crowd interaction and a deeply introspective style of musicianship, Thile presented almost two hours of solo mandolin music with repertoire spanning from Bach to Britney Spears.
This show marked the first stop on his tour to promote his latest album, “Laysongs,” a solo work that explores spirituality and draws on his religious upbringing. Tracks on the album feature Leonard Cohen poetry, a mandolin rendition of a Bartók solo violin piece and some original works referencing the Christian faith or quoting Bible passages.
Yet this is by no means a worship album — these pieces read like intimate journal entries, the musings of a musician finding his way in an uncertain spiritual landscape, an artist still discovering how he sees the world.
It is almost impossible to categorize a performer like Thile. Refusing to limit himself to a single genre, the works presented in this concert showed a brilliant versatility and unfettered joy in the variety of styles and sounds that music offers.
He performed several bluegrass and “newgrass” numbers, along with Bach violin works performed with astounding virtuosity on mandolin, and an impulsive crowd-requested cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
He seemed equally at home in the role of instrumentalist and singer, philosopher and musician, composer and performer. One piece featured his take on C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” a dialogue between mandolin and voice representing a conversation between a man and his demons.
The juxtaposition of original works with covers and transcriptions highlighted the wealth of different influences Thile draws upon in his music, and how interconnected even the most distinct musical genres can be.
It is difficult to think of many other musicians who can play such a variety of genres equally well, all in one concert, with such enthusiastic crowd engagement every step of the way. As someone who is used to hearing Bach in a concert hall filled with evening wear and stifled coughs, and bluegrass in a noisier and more casual setting, it was fascinating to hear both performed in the same concert. All elicited the same admiring audience reactions, whether original or a cover, centuries-old or improvised on the spot.
With only his mandolin and astute compositional instincts as a guide, Thile brought the entire audience on an exciting exploration of music as a source of connection, creativity, introspection and unabashed joy.