Story by Gisselle Hernandez, Assistant Features Editor
One stage. One man. One mandolin.
Nearly 1,000 people attended Grammy-winning mandolinist Chris Thile’s benefit concert Oct. 29 at Lovett Auditorium, raising nearly $28,000 in scholarships funds.
A Murray State alumnus, Thile started his U.S. solo tour by playing at his alma mater for the first time last Thursday. The proceeds of the concert went to endowing a scholarship for music students at Murray State, where Thile himself was once a music major years ago.
A member of band Nickel Creek and quintet Punch Brothers, London’s Independent described Thile as “the most remarkable mandolinist in the world” in a review of Punch Brothers’ release of “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”
Fans of Thile, both young and old, filled the auditorium as the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. By 7:30 p.m., all eyes were locked on the stage, which contained one love seat, a microphone and a table with a bottle of water.
Apparently, this is all the 2012 MacArthur fellow needed. After program director of WKMS Tracy Ross introduced him, Thile took over the stage, his only instruments being his mandolin and his voice.
And this was more than enough for the audience. Throughout his performance, Thile had the audience laughing with anecdotes, awe-struck with his voice and overall captivated by the sound his fingers made while furiously plucking the strings of the mandolin A sight that was “legendary” and “super fun to watch,” said Aaron Greene, Murray State alumnus from Mayfield, Kentucky.
Thile’s set list included songs from Nickel Creek, songs he wrote as a solo artist and tributes to Murray State, such as the school’s fight song. He even improvised songs about Murray itself, such as the local Dairy Queen closing for the season, which amused the audience.
The mandolinist said he was very excited to be back in Murray; his parent’s front porch in Murray was where he “began cutting his teeth as a songwriter/composer,” he told Ross in an interview for WKMS earlier that week.
His excitement was notable as Thile immersed himself in his playing, from occasionally stomping his feet on the stage floor to ardently moving his body every which way while strumming.
As no photography or videography from the audience was allowed, listeners sat back and enjoyed the show while Thile played his mandolin for almost two hours.
Nearing the end of the concert, Thile took requests for songs. Audience members who were familiar with Thile prior to the event yelled out their favorites.
He eventually settled on a mash-up as the audience cheered and sang along.
Thile skipped back onto stage to deliver an encore after having walked off to a standing ovation from the audience. For his encore, many people felt a personal connection as he stepped to the edge of the stage – closer to the audience – and didn’t use the microphone to sing “Moonshiner.”
“It takes an enormous amount of talent to perform completely unplugged, without the benefit of a microphone or any amplification to a crowd that size and command the room the way he did,” Greene said. “The crowd was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, and that’s a real testament to his skills as a performer.”
Greene, who saw Thile at Bonnaroo in 2012 and was briefly in a band with Thile’s brother, is a fan of Punch Brothers.
“As a musician, I always love watching a true master of their instrument perform, especially solo,” he said. “That’s when you really get to see what the musician is made of.”
Tina Bernot, interim executive director of development of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, said apart from raising funds for scholarships, bringing an artist of this caliber to Murray is most definitely beneficial to the university and community as it enhances cultural opportunities.
After Thile won the Outstanding Alumni in the Fine Arts award in 2014, he had an interest in coming back to give something to Murray State.
Bernot said this has been our first major benefit concert where the artist/alum has donated all proceeds back to the university.
Recipients of the Chris Thile Music Scholarship will be available to both full and parttime undergraduate students at Murray State majoring in any discipline in the Department of Music.