MUCH AS I ADMIRED Chris Thile during his time in Nickel Creek, I’ve been slow to accept him as the worthy successor to Garrison Keillor. He hosts Live from Here Saturday afternoons on your local NPR station, and Saturday the show was live from the Winspear Opera House here in Dallas. I went, curious, and also eager to hear The Head and the Heart, one of the featured bands. Seeing the show in person completely won me over to Thile, who is surely the Eric Clapton of the mandolin, covering Bach to the Pixies with a dexterity that seems impossible. Winning stage presence, too. Charming, warm, humble, funny.
I was introduced to Thile and Nickel Creek back in 2000 during Prairie Home Companion’s visit to the Pasadena Civic. Loved him and his modern bluegrass band instantly — put them on the annual family mix tape (“Reasons Why”). Hard to believe that was 19 years ago.
Let me connect more dots: I learned about The Head and the Heart from my son, Devin, circa 2012, and put “Down in the Valley” on another mix tape. It could have been the theme song for my drive back to Dallas after 28 years in Los Angeles (“I am on my way back to where I started…”). The band did not disappoint at the Winspear, and their last song, a new one, “People Need a Melody,” shouted “keeper.” The lyrics, about musical touchstones in the mind and memory pack a punch (“People need a melody to open their eyes / Like a key to a memory frozen in time…Boy, when you gonna learn that the world moves fast”).
IT’S DIFFICULT AND PROBABLY futile to try to explain why a song can have such meaning and power because of one’s own history and references. But the Head and the Heart clobbered me with that one, onstage with Thile, not long after my musical mom left us, she being my introduction to all this kind of music going back to when I was 10 years old. Well, there you have it. An extraordinary show that seemed more than the sum of its parts, and I haven’t mentioned the half of it. Esperanza Spalding? Who knew? I guess Thile knew. I hate to use the word “magic,” and maybe it was just me, but I felt something transcendent took place in Arts District Saturday. And I am newly grateful that the forces of darkness did not succeed in defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting. KERA. Go public!