“I wanted to salvage
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change, the way
photographers of war, miles from the front,
lift print after print into the light,
each one further cropped and amplified,
pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
until the small figures are restored
as young men sleeping.”
-Ellen Bryant Voight, “The Last Class”
Steve Earle said once, while explaining his decision to make a bluegrass album (The Mountain) that he was looking for immortality, because so few new bluegrass songs were written compared to the number of bands that good material got picked up and replayed ad nauseum. But – and someone correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t hear other bands picking up and running with the great songs on that, “Texas Eagle” or “Carrie Brown” or “The Graveyard Shift”. Too personal, maybe, or too idiosyncratic?
I think Chris Thile’s in the same boat except he’s actually expanding the melodic and harmonic vocabulary of bluegrass and I’ll bet you in a generation or two everyone in the genre will know all his songs, but right now I don’t think fans or other bands are seeing past the different rhythms to process what he’s doing. There was a very clear divide at the concert we saw on Saturday night where probably 60% of the crowd was loving almost everything he and his crack band did, another 20% kept shouting for songs from his previous band, jam-grass crossover stars Nickel Creek, and another 20% only applauded when it hewed closest to more traditional motifs/structures/solos/harmonies including the Stanley Brothers “Lonesome River”, a few of his solo songs, and a cover of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” from his first post-Nickel Creek record under his own name.
This shift/fissure came most apparent during a new instrumental when a sizable portion of the crowd tried to clap along and made it through about a third of the tune, with dropped beats and barely-perceptible time signature shifts, the lightbulb moment of the show both for that and because it affirmed what a monster the bass player is, his arco work on about half the set gave everything a darker string quartet feeling and even his standard pizzicato plucking sometimes sounded like a thunderstorm on a hot day. But everyone was, of course, excellent from the violinist to the rock-solid guitar player to the banjo player who filled the piano role in the more chamber-music numbers the quintet did, to Thile who obviously knows his Monroe and his McCoury and his Louvin and his Bush but played the mandolin like Eric Dolphy played the tenor sax: turning what you thought it could do inside out, playing it like a drum, playing it like a radio tuned between two stations.
A third of the set was dedicated to newly recorded songs for an upcoming record, which had the virtuosic rave-ups and heartbreak narratives you’d expect but they showed a more assured grasp of tone in the lyrics, the comingling of barroom-weepy and ironic-awareness less jarring and the hooks stronger and clearer but not veering towards radio-friendly, lines like “You’re only as good as your last goodbye” ringing in my head for hours.
The connection between the covers and the history and what they’re doing now seemed more evident but no less surprising in the new material, with the violinist’s use of extremely quiet playing and dissonance learned for a Radiohead cover showing up as the intro to one of the thornier newer songs, and the interesting klezmer and flamenco touches that showed up in the newer material. This’d be better if my dumb ass had remembered to bring a pen and jot down the titles of the newer songs but rest assured if you like this kind of thing at all and they’re playing near you? See them. And I’m willing to bet right now on their next record rocking me.
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