There was an oriental rug on the stage, centered and towards the front, with one stool in the far left corner and a single microphone, dead center. Clearly the makings of a solo show, Chris Thile made a joke about the “International Committee of Solo Performers” – you must play at least one, but no more than three, songs about the civil war. And then he launched into his signature style, folk, and rocked out on his mandolin.

Chris Thile © Danny Clinch
Chris Thile
© Danny Clinch

What Thile referred to as “stuff”, was really just his modest designation between his own compositions and the traditional folk songs and classical pieces by Bach which make up his new album. Throughout the evening, Thile performed the entire G minor Sonata for violin (but on mandolin, of course) with the other “stuff” mixed in.

Like many of Bach’s pieces, the G minor Sonata is technically gruelling, especially the Fugue, but Thile seemed completely at ease. Playing with sparkling clarity, Thile’s remarkable intuition for his instrument shone through; he played like a real virtuoso, tackling all the notes head on, with quick runs, trills and tempos. The mandolin lent the piece a Baroque quality, making it sound as if we were listening to a lute in a kingly court room, rather than a mandolin in Carnegie's Zankel Hall.

Halfway through the performance and the Sonata, Thile performed Bach’s Partita no. 1 in B minor. A set of four dances Thile played, he mentioned that for him, and hopefully those in the audience, hearing the Partita on an instrument other than the violin allows us to better hear Bach's ornamentation – the rich layers of harmony that lay atop each melodic theme in the four dances. Thile said we could hear Bach “riffing off his own jams”. A more accurate description would be Thile riffing off Bach's jams. There were sections that were so fast, Thile’s fingers literally flew, but the music never sounded rushed. Despite the rapid pace, Thile never skipped a beat. And not once did I miss the violin; the mandolin’s tinny quality lent a whole new perspective to the Bach Partita without compromising the rich musical quality that has defined Bach’s music well into the modern age.

Of course, Thile couldn’t resist riffing off his own jams, and played Here and Heaven, my personal favorite track from the album The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Originally accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Aiofe O'Donovan, this live version on solo mandolin felt “unplugged” without his compatriots. But just like the Bach, I didn’t miss the others: Thile’s soulful, Southern voice combined with the subtle dynamics transformed an otherwise sweet song, with light, catchy tunes into a weighty, dramatic song.

Chatting in between each song, whether it was Bach or his “stuff”, the entire performance was casual, intimate and fun. We all got a real sense of Thile’s personality – and felt that when the curtain closed, we would all gather at the bar next door for a beer.

All in all, Thile was a real star, humble yet virtuosic; quirky yet totally comfortable in his own skin. And in his own words from the encore: “There aren't too many folks who can play too many notes on the mandolin”.

Next time Chris Thile is in town, give him a shot. You might just become a mandolin convert.