The hilarious comedy team of Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile brought the house down with their zany antics on Tuesday night at Ingram Hall. Along the way, the duo also performed double bass and mandolin with breathtaking virtuosity, extemporized brilliantly, and even found a kind of folksy sublimity in the music of J.S. Bach.
Meyer, the celebrated composer and double bassist, and Thile, the mandolinist extraordinaire, were at the Blair School of Music as part of a month-long tour to promote their new album Bass & Mandolin. Over the course of their two-hour-plus concert, the duo sampled some of the album’s trademark fusion of classical music and bluegrass, and they even indulged their shared passion for Bach. (They cleverly disguised this high-brow penchant by referring to one of the canons from Bach’s Art of the Fugue as a “cover song.”)
Thile and Meyer are without question the supreme practitioners of their respective instruments, but one suspects that they come together primarily because they love each other’s company. Their comradery was evident in their music-making – the duo was surely communicating through telepathy given the flawless dovetailing of their playing. It was also manifested in their playful, comic banter.
“It’s going to be a long evening so don’t encourage him,” Meyer said of Thile near the beginning of the concert. Thile required no pushing. Tall, lean and sporting a Lyle Lovett-like hair-do, Thile proved to be an irresistible dynamo, swaying happily to the music, playing the stand-up comic to Meyer’s straight man. “We’ve been counting you during this set,” Thile teased the audience before intermission. “So if you leave, we’ll know.”
Empty seats would have been conspicuous because so few were available. A Nashville resident, Meyer has a large following of family, friends and fans in Music City, and most of them seemed to be at Ingram on Tuesday. Fans of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers (Thile’s progressive acoustic ensembles) also attended in large numbers.
What drew the crowd was a style of music that blends classical, folk, jazz, blues and bluegrass into something altogether new. I am not sure whether any of this music is great – these tunes are showy but not searching. But I doubt greatness is the point. Meyer and Thile are out to wow the crowd, and wow them they did with playing that constantly pushed the boundaries of their instruments.
Throughout the concert, Thile’s fleet-fingered notes darted playfully around Meyer’s melancholy melodies and ostinato patterns. Meyer, for his part, often seemed intent of turning his lumbering bass into an agile cello, playing passages in the bass’ highest register, doing his level best to match Thile’s blistering speeds.
There were many highlights. I can’t listen to the song “Tarnation,” the second song played during Tuesday’s second set, without my jaw hitting the flow. The quicksilver quality of the playing would have left Flatt and Scruggs feeling breathless. In “Monkey Actually,” the third song on the first set, the duo achieved the sort rhythmic freedom and spontaneity usually associated with great jazz.
The biggest complaint one has in listening to this music is that it often sounds homogenous – the strength of the bass and mandolin is rhythm, not color. But the duo made up for this in several ways. Most obviously, they occasionally switched instruments. In “Friday,” for instance, Thile strummed guitar while Meyer offered a little George Winston-like schmaltz on piano. Of course, Meyer also has this uncanny knack for making his bass sound like a cello.
Mostly though, the duo has the sort of playful imagination that makes up for any shortcomings. This creativity really came to the fore in the second set, in an improvisation that featured some of the deftest dovetailing and nuanced playing of the evening. Thile and Meyer asked the audience to name the piece, and “I Like Pie” quickly got the nod. Why not name the piece themselves? After years of playing together, Meyer and Thile understand the advantage of collaboration.
“It makes us stronger,” says Thile.