I sat backstage last night as Chris Thile played for 90 minutes with no intermission in front of a sold out audience. Seeing him play mandolin from the sidelines is intimate in the way that having a conversation with someone while driving is intimate. You’re not starting straight at them, but somehow you’re able to feel closer to them while watching the landscape change. You can be completely engaged and introspective at the same time.
When I was living in New York, the Punch Brothers album, “Antifogmatic” had just come out. I loaded it onto my iPod and headed to Boston early one morning to visit my cousin. On a bus, sitting next to a ripped stranger in an Army sweatshirt, I listened to the album in awe of my hero, Chris Thile, and his virtuosic undertaking. Then I got to this song. As soon as it was over, I hit repeat. And then again, and again, until I could picture my own fingers on the neck of a mandolin, playing this song.
When I returned to my apartment in Brooklyn, I got out my mandolin, and tried to drown out the noise of the subway and my sociopath alcoholic roommates, by turning up the volume in my headphones, and playing along with this song. It became my escape. I was in the living room with the Punch Brothers. We were all jamming, and then during a quiet moment, I’d start strumming the opening notes: dum-duh, dum-da duh…
There are only two musicians who I totally lose my cool around. The first is Brad Mehldau, and the second is Chris Thile. I could be absolutely fine talking to an entire rock band filled with guyliner-wearing, angsty 20-somethings, but put me in a room with Chris, and I lose it. Words become fdjiosngiodsai, and legs become rubber. I did manage to get one sentence out, though: “Thank you for playing ‘This is the Song’ tonight.”
He’ll never know how much the song means to me. He’ll never know how many times I played that song, huddled in the corner of my sweltering Brooklyn apartment. He’ll never know about the events that would transpire less than 24 hours after hearing that song performed live that night in Santa Barbara–heavy news being conveyed in probably the least considerate way. He won’t know that I’m listening to the song now, trying to make sense of it all. But thanks in any case, Chris Thile. “This is the song where I listen. This is the song where I sit still, until my heartbeat drowns out the clock ticking, and this song is just I love you and always will…”