Of the many artistic parties called on to make House Calls — the intimate streaming concert series hosted by UCSB’s Arts & Lectures — Chris Thile may be the ripest candidate. The virtuoso mandolinist with the erudite guy-next-door charm makes a lot with little resources — wee ax, versatile voice, genre-blending wizardry, and easy charisma. He makes intimate situations seem epic, as also heard via his unique, pandemic-felled radio experiment Live from Here.
Over many local shows, Thile has deftly conjured up living room-scaled ambience, at the Lobero Theatre (including a memorable Bach-intensive show) and regular stops at Campbell Hall. Here, by necessity, Thile appeared in-house in his house, clad in black knit cap, striped shirt and checkered scarf, as if prepped to break into sea shanties. He did, in fact, open with a vintage British Isles folk epic, “House Carpenter,” adorned in a fanciful, twisted arrangement.
But Thile’s musical and idiomatic waterfront is vast and multi-shored, and this short-but-satisfying set showcased his broad aesthetic, while avoiding repeating past local set lists. A brisk bluegrass run through the Del McCoury classic “Loneliness to Desperation” segued into Thile’s bittersweet waltz “Waltz for Dewayne Pomeroy.” He tapped songs from his new, ready-to-birth album and dipped back to songs by his old band Punch Brothers, also paying tribute to Gillian Welch (“Hard Times”), and flexing his heart-deep reverence for J.S. Bach. A local angle, once-removed, arrived with “On Ice,” a song written on a collective challenge with bandmates on tour — his seminal project Nickel Creek and guest Glen Phillips, Santa Barbara’s own local-global hero.
Thile’s musical passion is self-evident, especially live from wherever. In the Q&A, he admitted feeling “really fortunate to have this thing that plucks me out of slogging through. For that period of time, it’s me and the instrument, whoever else is onstage with me and whoever is in the house.” On this occasion, he laughed, it was only “me and my buddy Ben, the cameraman.”