REVIEW: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau at the Barbican (2017 EFG LJF)

Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile
Artists’ publicity picture

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
(Barbican, 12 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Leah Williams)

Brad Mehldau is the kind of artist that sells out venues, and tonight was no exception. However, on this occasion he was not alone and he wasn’t simply in his usual guise of jazz pianist extraordinaire. As part of a new project, Mehldau has teamed up with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile to create a new, distinctive sound that combines their strengths. Aptly introduced before the concert began, their music was described as “a rather unconventional meeting” between jazz and bluegrass, but one that has achieved “a powerful and compelling new language in the hands of these masters.”

They met through their shared label Nonesuch, on which they have just released their own album (inventively — as they joked — named Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau). It might have seemed an unlikely pairing but the overwhelming reaction from the audience during this, their only scheduled UK performance, confirmed that these two musicians have found something quite unique and spectacular together.

The majority of tunes played came from their album, and were mostly written by one or both of them with some inventive covers of songs by contemporary powerhouses like Fiona Apple, Elliot Smith and Irish band Planxty included. Despite this ever-widening range of sounds and genres, none of it was bitty or disjointed; this is a style all their own and it is consistently spellbinding. Whether they were pushing boundaries and playing with frenetic energy or stripping the sound back, they displayed an incredible synchronicity and timing that seemed to float in and out of improvisation and order with telepathic ease.

Chris Thile was simply mesmerising to watch on stage, dancing and jerking as one with his mandolin as he accessed every sonorific capability it afforded whilst delivering expressive and completely on point vocals. Mehldau alongside was, expectedly, quietly brilliant with his eyes closed and inner being lost in the pleasure of playing. Their obvious enjoyment in this music-making together was tangible throughout and radiated out unbound into the audience.

By the final number, a simply outstanding and rousing cover of Bob Dylan’s classic Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, no-one could contain themselves further and there were unbridled shouts of joy and spontaneous clapping from the audience. This culminated in a standing ovation and enough enthusiasm to bring the duo back out onto stage for not one but two encores, the final of which was a quietly magical rendition of Gillian Welch’s Dark Turn of Mind, which sadly is not on the album.

A rare meeting indeed of two musicians at the top of their games, who have combined their talents and differences to create a fresh and exciting sound, making for a simply unforgettable performance.

Categories: miscellaneous

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