Chris Thile

Chris Thile and Jason Isbell talk about stupid iPhone videos

In recent weeks, I’ve come across quotes from two favorite artists, Jason Isbell and Chris Thile, expressing frustration with concert-goers who watch their shows through the viewfinder of a phone camera or, God forbid, a tablet. What’s interesting is that neither singer/songwriter was upset about losing revenue through unauthorized recordings – both were lamenting artistic problems with the practice.

Here’s Isbell in a 2013 interview with the New York Times:

Isbell reserves special scorn for people who record his shows on cellphones and post clips to YouTube. “It’s an intrusion because I’m not performing for documentation’s sake, I’m performing for people’s ears and their eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t mind the scrutiny of it. We’re good every night. I just feel like people aren’t participating in the community of the room when they’re behaving that way.”

He shook his head. “My favorite thing about going to concerts has always been looking around and thinking that there’s a lot of people in here that are very much like me, a lot of people in here I could have a full conversation with. I might even get laid in this room. You’re not getting laid if you’re standing there with your cellphone.”

Then he laughed and said: “I can’t get too mad. I would have done the same with Neil Young when I was a kid, if I could have.”

And here’s Thile in this year’s January-February issue of relix magazine:

“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them… I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”

It’s interesting to think about this from the artist’s perspective. As an occasional preacher and former high school debater, I can tell you that, no matter how sneaky you think you’re being, the speaker up front can tell exactly how much attention you’re giving. Closed eyes are obvious; I’m looking right at everyone in the crowd and I know how they’re all reacting. You know if you have the room or not. So if it’s damn ugly to look at a picture and see hundreds of people raising their phones, how bad must it be for the band to look out at that?

But I do take photos – very rarely videos, though I’ve done that too, especially in the more distant past – but I do take photos. And it’s for exactly the reason Thile describes: To share with people who aren’t there. (See: This blog.) I try to just snap a few with different focuses and different stage lighting, put the most focused few on Facebook and Twitter in real time, then say mission accomplished and put my phone away for the rest of the night to take in the show. I used to be a much more egregious offender, but unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s not much chance your 200th photo will be any different than your 20th, and a concert is about sound, not sight, so get your damn Facebook shot and then just put the gadget down.

What do you think? Do you take photos, or even videos, at concerts? Why or why not? Do you agree with Isbell and Thile? Do you think there are important differences here between the fans’ perspectives and the artists’?

Punch Brothers are really really great live, y’all!

I got to meet Chris Thile after a Nickel Creek concert last May. It was well after midnight but, unlike the band’s other two sleepy members, Thile couldn’t have been more amped up hanging out with fans by the tour bus. I asked him if the band’s reunion meant no more Punch Brothers, and he replied, “No way, man! I’ve got way too much musical energy to ever have just one project going at a time!”

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

The writer and Chris Thile, May 2014

A fitting self-description, because what a month Thile is having. First, on February 7 and again on the 14th, he guest-hosted for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion – not the show’s first guest host, but the first time Keillor hasn’t even been present for the show. Then, in the middle of that on February 8, he won the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” GRAMMY along with Edgar Meyer for “Bass and Mandolin,” and was nominated for three more with both Meyer and Nickel Creek. Now his band Punch Brothers is back on the road in support of their brand new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” (vinyl|CD). I was lucky enough to see them their third night at DC’s 9:30 Club for what Thile told the crowd was the first time they had ever played three nights anywhere, adding on the date after the first two sold out.

And you guys, Punch Brothers can PLAY.

If you’re unfamiliar with Punch Brothers, they’re sort of a bluegrass-classical fusion band. You could also call them, although comparison descriptions are almost always unfair, the darker side of Nickel Creek. It would also be unfair to call it “The Chris Thile Show” because the other musicians are also great and are showcased well, but Thile is almost always the lead singer and his mandolin virtuosity does take center stage. This is even more true at a live show, where his raw energy can really take over (heck, even half the fun of May’s Nickel Creek concert was watching Thile rock out to “The Fox”).

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15Punch Brothers’ albums are good, but I absolutely loved Sunday night’s concert. The music, whether recorded or live, is like Nickel Creek bluegrass but with more minor keys and classical influence – co-founder Gabe Witcher plays his instrument as a violin as often as he does fiddle (he’s also the drummer). There are also times when it sounds like Thile’s turn playing on Bela Fleck’s classical banjo album “Perpetual Motion” was a major influence. The difference between the sound recorded and the sound live is threefold. First is the warmth – I can’t explain it, it’s just warmer live, even with all the minor keys. It’s more personal and soulful, not just because the performers are there but the music itself. Second, and this is often the case with bluegrass, the vocal harmonies are just tighter – I absolutely loved the way Thile and Chris Eldridge sounded together live. Third, as I mentioned above and this was true about May’s Nickel Creek show too, is Thile’s energy. It’s not that he jumps around like Garth Brooks; there’s just an irrepressive spirit surrounding every move he makes and infusing every pluck of the mandolin. You can tell this is a man who loves music – you almost expect him to shout at any moment, “Oh boy, I GET TO PLAY ANOTHER SONG NOW! YAY!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, ANOTHER SONG!!!” He was good on “Magnet” and “My Oh My” but at his finest for the new song “I Blew It Off,” perhaps my favorite moment of the evening prior to the encore. And oh man, that encore. The band really f***ing brought it for “Heart in a Cage,” their 2006 cover of The Strokes, and another track from the new album, “Little Lights.”

For what it’s worth, if you heard Thile hosting PHC, his stage persona was very much the same with Punch Brothers. The other band members each introduced a song and spoke a little, but it was mostly Thile. Two fun moments showcasing the rest of the band was when banjo player Noam Pikelny introduced the band’s instrumental arrangement of “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (which was what reminded me most of Perpetual Motion). He said that Debussy died tragically – “Tragically in that he did not live long enough to hear our arrangement.” Later, Eldridge announced a tribute to the Seldom Scene – his dad Ben’s legendary bluegrass band, and Punch Brothers did a great straight-bluegrass rendition of “Through the Bottom of The Glass” with Eldridge taking lead vocals and bass player Paul Kowert ripping off a really fun solo.

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15The last thing I’ll note is how amazing the DC music scene can be – I have to imagine that artists are pleasantly surprised by the crowds they find here. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s show at the same standing-only venue a week before, the crowd was a mix of hipsters and country folks in the city with an even broader age spread. And just like with Simpson, they knew how to sing along, which seemed to thrill Thile to no end. The crowd started strong shouting “Oh Boy!” on the night’s third song, Rye Whiskey, and just didn’t let up – nor did the band. I don’t think anyone wanted the show to end. I certainly know I left feeling happy on the inside, even a little transcendent. I’ll review Phosphorescent Blues soon, but what I really look forward to is the next time I get to see Punch Brothers live. I’m really glad Thile is just 34 – this is definitely someone I want to spend the next 50 years listening to.

VIDEO: Chris Thile reacts to Bach and Radiohead the same way

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

A very blurry photo of the writer meeting Chris Thile last month

The other day, a friend told me how surprised she was to find herself enjoying the mandolin at a bluegrass concert. I replied that if you think you don’t like the mandolin, it’s probably only because you haven’t heard Chris Thile yet.

I went searching for some great Thile clips to show her, and came across this one from last year where he jams on multiple genres as part of an interview with the Wall Street Journal. I LOVE this point that he makes: Classical music isn’t any more staid or somber than rock or pop; it’s the AUDIENCES that are more reserved. But not the music or the artists! He compares a riff from Bach to a riff from Radiohead – both on the mandolin – and says they’re both “super intense!” and deserve similar reactions. Sounds good to me! What is music if not a portal into your emotions and your soul?

What do you think?