Presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures. At Campbell Hall, Sun., Jan. 7.
Campbell Hall was sold out for this first performance of the winter season, and the reason was abundantly clear as soon as Chris Thile took the stage. There’s no one else in music today with quite the same presence, or the range. His opening medley, which ran nearly 25 minutes, stretched from contemporary rock through bluegrass, jazz, and folk, and included the opening movement of Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin, as arranged by Thile for the mandolin. Other musicians may play as many different styles, but Thile has a way of owning it all that sets him apart. His Bach, for example, never sounds like showing off; rather these pieces have become another way that he thinks musically, a strong thread in the densely woven fabric of this artist’s singular vision.
Thankfully, Thile also makes plenty of room for humor, as when he engaged in repartee with various members of the audience or when he pranced from one end of the stage to the other, imitating Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand. Yet nothing about his lighthearted methods or self-deprecating manner in any way detracts from what remains at the center, which is a seemingly boundless musical talent. See him live and you will never wonder again if an entire night of solo mandolin will be enough to keep you interested. Working his way patiently through material from virtually every one of the groups and solo projects he has done, Thile repeatedly made the little strings of his instrument shriek, quiver, and sob in ecstatic orgies of rhythm and harmony. Highlights were too numerous to mention, but it would be a crime not to call attention to the brilliant work Thile is doing right now with the Song of the Week feature on his live radio broadcasts. Don’t miss any of these extraordinary feats of deadline defiance if you can help it — they are uniformly charming and superb.