He's not. You can provide me all the proof in the world - a birth certificate, a personal conversation with the doctor who delivered him - but it won't matter; I'll hold fast to my conspiracy theory. I wouldn't be surprised if he were a ten-foot tall Navi from the planet Pandora, sent to earth in a human avatar. Because there simply is no other way to explain what he does with music and how freakishly well he does it.
If you don't know who Chris Thile is, allow me to enlighten you. As a California-born and bred mandolin player, Thile is best known as part of the progressive bluegrass/pop trio Nickel Creek, which he started playing in when he was eight. Yep, eight. The other two, Sean and Sara, were young too. Over the next twenty years or so they toured like crazy, released three acclaimed albums, won some nifty awards. Thile has released solo albums; formed a new band called Punch Brothers that mixes bluegrass, jazz and classical music; recorded an album with double bass extraordinaire Edgar Meyer; and most recently has performed with the Winston-Salem Symphony. To say that the guy is versatile is not even scraping a thin shaving off the tip of the huge iceberg.
And it's not just that he's a good mandolin player. There are a fair number of stellar mandolin players out there. And by "stellar" I mean true virtuosos of the instrument; individuals who take it to a whole different level. I'm thinking Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Adam Steffey, to name a few. And, of course, Chris. You watch guys like these and realize you're hardly scratching the surface.
But with Thile, it's more than that. You realize he doesn't just play the mandolin well. You realize it's about so much more than just the instrument. Simply put, the guy experiences music differently from the rest of us. He hears it differently, thinks it differently, sees it differently, dreams it differently. This is a poor analogy, I know, but it's like The Matrix movie, and he's Neo and he's the one who has taken the pill to have his eyes opened and see things as they truly are. The rest of us just don't get it; we can't help but not get it. He gets it.
This past Tuesday my good friend Jerry and I witnessed his final performance with the Winston-Salem Symphony. He was premiering his "Concerto for Mandolin," a three-movement orchestral work he composed. It was so amazingly good; unlike anything I've ever heard. At least with Mozart I can kind of get a feel for where the music's going, a gist of what melody I might hear next, a sense of chord progression. Not with Thile's concerto - it was a surprise at every turn, joyfully unpredictable. It was about four minutes into the first movement when I realized my mouth had been hanging wide open; my jaw literally dropped down. When the first movement was done I turned to Jerry and said, "What do you do with that??" He just stared straight ahead, shaking his head.
When the concerto was finished, Thile proceeded to launch into three encores. And here is where you got a feel for his musicianship. His first piece - a Radiohead cover. Yep, Radiohead, that same alternative English rock band that, like Thile himself, defies all categories (it was "The Tourist" off OK Computer, by the way). From there he launched into a Bach piece - can't remember which one, but the thing that blew me away was how he replicated individual elements of the orchestral arrangement on four mandolin strings. And he concluded his little mini-concert with some bluegrass piece, returning the instrument for the first time that evening to its traditional context.
Now, you tell me - what earth-born creature writes a critically-acclaimed legit concerto and follows it with Radiohead, Bach and bluegrass - all flawlessly done? Exactly - none. Which proves my point.
I got to shake hands with this alien after the show, signing CDs. I bought the one he did with Edgar Meyer. I already had it (well, the download), but it was worth every penny of the $15 to get it autographed. Thile is an easily-excitable dude, very expressive, not one to sit still for long. He shook my hand, asked my name so he could sign my CD with a personal touch. I wasn't sure exactly what to say: "Wow, Mr. Thile, you sure are good" wasn't going to cut it. But what?? So I broached the conversation on somewhat common ground: I told him I loved the Radiohead piece. His eyes lit up and his tenor voice rose in pitch; I had obviously struck a chord. I told him I had secretly hoped he would play "Morning Bell" (YouTube clip below, by the way), and he said he considered it but chose not too, since the orchestra already heard it as an encore the night before. It was a short conversation, as the line behind me was long, but it was genuine and sincere. It was enough - more than enough.
On the drive home that night I wasn't sure what to think as I listened to some Punch Brothers. There are lots of musicians I hear live who inspire me with their skills to do better, work harder, keep at it. Chris Thile, though, almost has the opposite effect. I hear him play and seriously contemplate never picking up my mandolin again, much less continue the musical journey I've been on for the better part of my life. Because here is a guy who truly "gets it" - he not only sees the common thread between all music in his Bach-Radiohead-Bluegrass-Classical world, but he's grasped onto it firmly with both hands, tugging away at it at will.
No worries, I'm not giving up the journey. I just know there's someone out there who has been to the end of the road and can look back to tell us what it looks like. And perhaps we'll understand some of what he says. Some.
Oh, the videos. First, a Bach piece - amazing. Then Punch Brothers covering Radiohead's "Morning Bell." And finally Nickel Creek and Fiona Apple covering her hit "Criminal." (click links if no videos in your email). You must watch them all. Enjoy a virtuoso/genius/modern day Mozart in action. Trust me, they don't come around all that often. Because, you know, they're from another planet.