Bela Fleck and Chris Thile at the Opera House: “Why don’t you just grow up?”
Those were the words a bemused Bela Fleck offered Chris Thile three songs into a wildly adventurous performance of banjo-mandolin duets. The remark was a kind of playful chiding from a string-music elder to an eager disciple. It came after Thile heaped praise on Fleck’s genre-busting 1995 album, “Tales from the Acoustic Planet,” a record the former championed “when I was 15.”
The age crack aside, the comment followed a blistering reading of the “Acoustic Planet” leadoff tune, “Up and Running.” The two traded rhythmic jabs both playful and pensive, juggled warp-speed solos of astonishing precision, and shifted the string-music patterns from more stereotypical bluegrass surroundings to something more akin to jazz and swing.
The entire makeup of the two-and-a-quarter hour performance (excluding intermission) followed a similar flight pattern, using the more jazz-like variant of bluegrass often dubbed “new grass” as a template. The show opening “Riddles in the Dark” (from the 2001 Thile solo album “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”) embraced the form with joint rhythms that began with the spry acoustic expression of bluegrass but quickly deviated into string-music dashes of maniacal speed and intensity.
A second-set performance of “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (another “Acoustic Planet” gem) possessed a country swagger in the melody that the two repeatedly ripped open and jury-rigged with the kind of dizzying interplay that wouldn’t have been out of place on a vintage cartoon soundtrack. “This is the Song (Good Luck),” the closing tune to Thile’s 2010 album with Punch Brothers, “Antifogmatic,” was a discourse in dynamics, with the music slowed to a folkish cool before evaporating completely (but briefly) so only the mandolinist’s whispery singing remained. Best of all was “Metric Lips,” a Grammy-nominated Fleck tune from his ’80s tenure with New Grass Revival that worked off an initial mandolin groove before spinning off into jig-like runs and jazz-friendly improvising.
There were several new and unrecorded tunes that seemed to purposely shove the two into even more technically demanding turf, although “The Ghosts of Industry” downshifted with a lighter tone and temperament before splintering into showers of sparse, brittle notes from both players and even brief free-form runs.
It should also be noted that contrasting but complimentary performance stances were at work onstage. Fleck, 58, exhibited a largely stoic stage presence, while Thile, 35, seemed positively elastic, bobbing almost every joint in his lanky frame, even while seated. Capping it all off was the kind of spontaneous (make that scattered) between-song banter that ensured that this program of astonishing acoustic music was hardly a slick, perfunctory affair. That was underscored by another Fleck remark that came before the two paid their traditional bluegrass dues with an encore cover of Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” and after a piece of Thile’s ear monitor fell to the stage floor.
“Was that part of your brain?”