On Wednesday, July 20, 2016, I saw Béla Fleck and Chris Thile performing at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I love this beautiful venue and wish I could spend some time roaming the theater and photographing parts of the decor (check out the link to their web site to see what I mean if you haven’t been there). Upon entering the stage, the two gentleman careened straight into the lightning quick number “Riddles in the Dark” from Chris’s album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost. (Yes, a young Chris was inspired by The Hobbit.) On its conclusion, Chris remarked on the style of the theater and the lights behind the lattice work on the house right and left sides and in the overhead circle were changed to red, an effect that Chris continually referred to as the “lava bowl.”
The pair both have quite prolific discographies with multiple collaborations with other artists, and so it is difficult to be familiar with all the music they might play. Such was the case with their second tune, which I did not know, but is possibly called “The Fire.” A couple of the lyrics were: “Under the cover of night they come,” and “Too late for the fire.” It is intriguing to watch these two virtuosos perform together, seeing how carefully they listen to one another and the give and take of the lead and underlying lines, was so evident in their third number, “Up and Running,” from Béla’s album Tales from the Acoustic Planet. You can see video of this song from that night at the Ace at the link.
Chris introduced the next song, “No Concern of Yours” by referencing characters from Mad Men. “If you’re the kind of person who likes to know what a song is about, imagine a conversation between Don Draper and Pete Campbell.” The song was originally recorded by Chris’s progressive bluegrass group, Punch Brothers, and is found on their excellent album Who’s Feeling Young Now?. As the last note rang out someone in the crowd shouted out “beautiful” the second before the applause kicked in. I’d have to agree with him.
The duo then played a pair of songs I didn’t know, the first being something a little slower and groovy. During the second, Chris may have been trying to set a new speed record for playing the mandolin, included a nice of use of rests to bookend and highlight the musical phrases. Following those two, Béla remarked, “And now for something completely different” as we were given Scarlatti’s Sonata in C Major K. 159. Afterward, Béla joked, “I wrote that.”
Next up was Punch Brothers tune “This is the Song (Good Luck),” which I was so moved to hear Chris singing that night. It is one of those songs that sounds incredible whether it is performed individually or by a group. As a solo number you feel the wind blowing through those empty spaces in the performance, which as fittingly meets the mood of the piece as when it is performed in a group and the tune is beautifully embellished by multiple instruments and voices. This was a highlight of the evening for me. The original version can be found on the album Antifogmatic. I’ve used part of the first line of this song for the title of this post.
The final song of the first set, “Metric Lips” was from Béla’s band New Grass Revival. They joked about this one being excavated from the Tar Pits. Strangely it sounded like perhaps that was true, because for something thought of as new grass, it surely feels more dated than more recent tunes that are considered new grass. Have we reached the point where we are already in post-new grass?
The second set began with another fast number played by Chris and Béla. I didn’t know the name of this one either and they didn’t clue us in. However, I was able to snap one quick photo before the people who were sitting in front of me returned to their seats following the intermission.
Chris sang gently on the next number “The Ghosts of Industry,” as the two again showed off their impressive skills on their respective instruments, with Béla delivery a pretty, flowing solo, followed by a disjointed one from Chris. Whether or not one can musically breakdown and understand the pieces these men play, relate to them on an emotional level, or feel a general affinity for the music, admiring their abilities to play and remember these complex pieces is certainly something everyone can do. Particularly true when met with a distraction in playing, as happened to Béla toward the end of this number, as he noted after finishing, “I had a fingerpick fly off right as we were reaching the truth!” Well done to him for continuing on seemingly undisturbed.
There followed two more songs from Tales from an Acoustic Planet, played back-to-back; first “The Landing” and then the awesomely named “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (wait, did he meet me and my friends when I was growing up in Wisconsin?). Béla exited the stage after this and left Chris on his own. Chris told a long narrative about his 14-month-old son Calvin learning to talk and walk and his attempt to understand his son. He played a new song on the topic, which he called “Da,” a multi-use word of his son’s. The mandolin was used to convey the walking part of the theme. Following this, Chris headed offstage and Béla returned to play a couple songs from Tanzania and Mali that were part of his Throw Down Your Heart project to discover the origins of the banjo.
Chris came back on stage and they played “Me and Us” from the Punch Brothers album Antifogmatic. The final song of the set was once again an amazing display of musicianship, the synchronization of the two men on some of the runs was simply breathtaking. My brain felt tired at this point trying to follow and process all of these incredible sounds and I continued to be astounded at the work of the performers. I am not sure what this instrumental was called. I scribbled something illegible down in my notebook that looks like “Shingosun.” I have no idea what that is, but if anyone is trying to come up with a title for a song, feel free to use that one, because no one else has!
For the encore, Chris pronounced, “I think Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs would want us to dig deep.” Béla chimed in that they were “going to play some bluegrass!” They covered Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow.” In concluding another fine evening of music, I left the theatre completely satisfied with life, if a little worn down by the seemingly relentless onslaught of notes and rhythms my brain had to comprehend in a couple hours of time. Once again, Chris Thile has left me wondering if I should buckle down and practice playing music several hours a day or pass my instruments on to the next person I see, because I will never achieve anything close to his level of proficiency. Or perhaps there is a third option of acceptance of my limitations and continued appreciation for those with more time and inclination to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished on a given instrument. Yes, I think I’ll go with that last one.