I caught the second of “In Your Ear Redux” concerts at Zankel Hall with The Tensions Mountain Boys Saturday night, and I was happy I did!

1. Chris Thile (mandolin, voice and composer) is clearly a masterful musician. His new group The Tensions Mountain Boys (Chris Eldridge, guitar/vocals; Greg Garrison, Bass; Noam Pikelny, Banjo; Gabe Witcher, violin (nee fiddle)/vocals; and Thile) is a perfect match. They all connect with astounding playing abilities and a certain nonchalance on stage. Thile was downright comedic in his delivery: “You’re all so kind to come here tonight, but why are you in your underwear? We dressed up!” and as the lighting changed for the evening’s featured work, “Yeah, Blue! – uhm, of course, it’s Bluegrass!”

2. The concert started with a few short selections before The Blind Leaving the Blind. It allowed the group to warm up, check things and was a delightful introduction. Thile has a “voice sweetly bland” and performs with a certain integrity and distinction.

3. The main work (really why I was at the concert in the first place) was The Blind Leaving the Blind. Terry Teachout * in his notes describes it as a “40 minute suite” and perhaps as a “cantata.” Thile announced that there would be three definite stops, with tuning in between and that it might be considered in six sections.

It is a beautiful journey, with sometimes angular melodies (such as the second movement) and for me, the emotional pinnacle was the lengthy third movement. The finale is aptly virtuosic, but not as engaging as the middle movements.

I don’t think this will translate well for others, the way Bach does or even the way Glass or Reich do in the hands of say Alarm Will Sound, but it is great music. I just believe this ensemble fits like a glove to the music and would not fit others – but I’m happy to be wrong on this point.

Suffice it to say, The Blind Leaving the Blind isn’t a typical bluegrass jam or a stuffy cantata, rather a blend of genres and talents that only a virtuoso like Thile & company could pull off.

(*Small aside, I think Teachout was sitting just a row ahead of me at the concert – and John Adams was on the right side boxes – I even spied Dawn Upshaw as I was upstairs before the concert)

4. The concert had a certain flow and good feeling. The group jammed to a point of ebullience, and certainly communicated both musically and verbally this joy in performing. The audience was certainly into the groove as well, I don’t know that I’ve felt such a vibe in a long time.

5. Thile announced that The Tensions Mountain Boys was the new group and they would continue on after tonight. They also came back and did encores for the ecstatic crowd, including a very fun blues tune which started completely a capella for all five. Even after this, the audience wanted more, but the house lights finally faded up with the realization that the magical night had come to a close.  (Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall; by Jennifer Taylor)

John Clare is an ASCAP Deems Taylor award winning radio host and violinist.  He’s currently on the air in Harrisburg, PA with a new show, Composing Thoughts.  A voracious music fan, you can read his about his travels, interviews, and reviews at ClassicallyHip.com.

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