How often do you get to say you saw a bona fide genius at work? Don't take my word for it -- the MacArthur Foundation said so. That's hardly the reason I picked up tickets for the Chris Thile/Michael Daves show at the Great American Music Hall, but it was a nice point on an evening I was unlikely to see again.
Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Great American Music Hall, May 9, 2013: I may have said this before, but this will likely be the least informative blog post/gig review you'll ever read -- right up there with my jazz notes. Quite simply, I know little about roots music, and I'm not about to dig into heavy research on its long, storied history. For much of my life, I lumped it in haphazardly with country music -- which to my mainstream ears, meant the big Nashville hits. I'm glad to have been proven wrong, but I'll leave the substantive writing to the experts. However, I'll report as best I can about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration and their first appearance together on the West Coast.
I went into this show as a casual fan -- albeit one who gets there early for a good spot at the front of the venue. But ask me about the discography and I got nothing. Well, I clicked around on YouTube when the date was first announced and was captivated by the duo's rendition of "Ookpik Waltz." That was enough for me.
My first impression: This may have been the barest stage I've ever seen, adorned with an one guitar and one guitar stand. There was also a single old-fashioned studio-style microphone. I've seen a similar setup at Largo (of course), but the formal name of the mic escapes me, though I'm sure I've heard it before. Please feel free to inform me if you know.
Chris, of course, took up his trademark mandolin, while Michael handled acoustic guitar. On the whole, they shared vocals equally, though I wasn't tallying verses sung. I've heard Chris sing many times before, which may be why I wasn't particularly mindful of his lyrical contributions. I paid more attention to Michael's segments, perhaps because of the novelty. Their voices worked together very well, but Michael had more of the old-fashioned, high lonesome twang. He struck me as more of the traditionalist backbone of the duo, but again, I barely have a leg to stand on in this genre.
Honestly, they were collaborators engaged in a give and take on every song. Clearly, they had impressive chops and knew how to usher along the proceedings with a vintage variety-show-style patter, but the music lived and breathed in their performance.
If you've seen Chris before, whether with the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, or solo, you know the frenzy he can whip up with the mandolin; he didn't slow down for this show. Michael met him along the way, and amid these traditional tunes, they reserved a segment for by-the-seat-of-your-pants improvisations. They even messed up once or twice! In fact, their body language revealed their deep engagement and investment in the performance, as they leaned heavily into their instruments, leaped off the ground from time to time, and even tried to get the audience to join in with a little tiptoe move.
Based on context clues, they hit most of the songs of their record. I say that because I don't own the record, but cross-referencing the album listing on Amazon and my memory of the intros, I can almost guarantee they hit the likes of "Cry, Cry Darling," "My Little Girl in Tennessee," and the aforementioned "Ookpik Waltz."
Perhaps more interesting, they reserved two segments of the show for requests from the audience. As soon as they opened up the floor to suggestions, a hail of voices hit them, and I'm still not sure how they picked out certain songs. Alas, this is where the lack of Alan Lomax in my life fails me because I didn't recognize a single tune they settled on. As I recall, they went with something called "Gold Rush," in honor of San Francisco. In the second half of the show, the final tally of titles ("Cherokee"? "Rawhide"?) struck me as more suited for a John Wayne film festival, but the warm welcome indicated they were highly anticipated tracks.
Chris and Michael returned for two encores, and I can't tell you the final song because I don't know it, but I figured out the penultimate track. As it happens, it's on the record too: "It Takes One to Know One." This became a big sing-along and could've been the perfect ending to the show. But I'm glad they stuck around for a little bit longer.
I apologize for the least substantive report you're likely to read about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration. If you take nothing else away from this write-up, know this: For fans of bluegrass, traditional music, or either of the artists, you won't come away disappointed. This isn't your parents' bluegrass, but it could be if they're so inclined.
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