Gig review: Chris Thile at the Borderline, London
Chris Thile’s London show coincided with the centenary of the birth of bluegrass pioneer and mandolin virtuoso Bill Monroe, so it was fitting that he began with Monroe tunes. But it was just as fitting that this was a show by possibly the only musician in the world who could appear solo and keep an audience rapt for two hours with just a 1924 Gibson mandolin for company.
Thile’s earlier incarnation with Nickel Creek was credited with making bluegrass cool again, while his current band Punch Brothers has stretched the limits of the genre further than Monroe could probably ever have conceived. Thile is much more than just a bluegrass musician – he twice broke into extended performances of pieces written by Bach for violin, took requests for fiddle tunes and performed many of his own compositions, including some songs that might have seemed like indie pop if only he’d been wielding an electric guitar.
Thile had originally intended to perform with New York-based guitarist Michael Daves in support of their new album, Sleep with One Eye Open, but Daves was forced to cancel due to family illness. Solo performing didn’t seem to faze Thile, who is not only an astounding mandolin player but also possesses extraordinary stage presence and a range of facial expressions and body movements that most stand-up comedians would kill for. He also has fascinating dress sense and was perfectly attired, down to the tie pin and the belt buckle glimpsed beneath his jacket. In the sweltering basement venue, he may have wished he’d opted for a more casual appearance – he wondered aloud where he could find a one-hour dry cleaners to deal with his sweat-soaked clothing – but he kept his jacket on and his enthusiasm going right to the end.
Chris Thile is not for everyone – a mandolin-accompanied performance is a special experience – but his undoubted musicianship, his obvious excitement at performing for the audience and his charisma will ensure that everyone will leave enriched.