Concert Preview: Grammy Duo Béla Fleck, Chris Thile Headlining Ives Concert Park's Music Fest America

Published: September 03, 2016 at 12:00 am


DANBURY - As long-time buddies, premier banjo player Béla Fleck and mandolin virtuoso, composer and vocalist Chris Thile probably never dreamed they would become among the most respected and revered artists of their generation on their respective instruments.

But thanks to that long and musically fruitful friendship, and an opportunity to write and tour together in duo format, lovers of stripped down acoustic magic will see this talented pair headlining Music Fest America at Ives Concert Park on the Western Connecticut State University westside campus on Saturday, September 10.

Music Fest America celebrates America's musical traditions, presenting free performances on two stages from 3 to 5:30 pm including afternoon sessions with Six String Soldiers, and some of Connecticut's best bluegrass, jazz, folk, roots, gospel and classical artists. Then, after a brief intermission, the Ives gates will reopen for paid ticket-holders at 6 pm, welcoming them for an evening with Fleck and Thile on the Ives gazebo stage.

The ticketed event featuring Fleck and Thile begins at 7 pm.

A call-in to The Newtown Bee ahead of the Danbury show revealed how excited Fleck was to be doing another concert or two with his mando mate.

"We only played together once before in July, so we got together in May to compose some pieces. Then we got together again in June at the Telluride Festival where we worked on our set list - which is a combination of each of our tunes that we were familiar with. Then we played eight shows in all, working and developing new music that we were really excited about. The rest of our set will be some bluegrass, an odd Flecktones piece, a Punch Brothers piece and solo stuff from Chris' catalog.

"One of the great things about me and Chris is we feel the rhythm together. We're like one person when we start to play together - more than with any other person I've played with. The bond is so effortless and so interesting that it takes everybody on a magic carpet ride," Fleck added. "And the pyro-technical things we do is complimented by his vocal abilities. He's got a lot of simple beauty in his concepts. We'll certainly burn a bit, but I love the simple concepts. I'm really excited to present this duo."

A humble 16-time Grammy Award winner, Fleck's collaboration with Thile is the latest in a seemingly endless line of match-ups for the artist, who holds a place in Grammy history for being nominated in the most categories since 1988 when he took home his first, as the first-ever Best Bluegrass Album winner for his solo album Drive. Today, Fleck remains a powerfully creative force globally in bluegrass, jazz, classical pop, rock and world beat.

He performs in concert with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, in banjo duet with his wife Abigail Washburn, and back to bluegrass with his old friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton and others.

He also collaborates with African artists such as Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate, in a jazz setting with The Marcus Roberts Trio, and with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, who continue to perform together 25 years after the band's inception.

And now, for the first time, with multiple Grammy Award-winner and MacArthur Fellow Thile, who in just a few weeks will replace the legendary Garrison Keillor as the host of the popular NPR program "A Prairie Home Companion."

Coming up in the business as a member of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, Thile maintains a broad outlook that encompasses classical, rock, jazz, and bluegrass. A child prodigy, Thile first rose to fame with Nickel Creek, with whom he released three albums and sold over two million records.

As a soloist Thile has released five albums including his most recent, Bach: Partitas and Sonatas, Vol. 1, which was produced by renowned bassist Edgar Meyer. In February 2013 Thile won a Grammy for his work on The Goat Radio Sessionscollaborating with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.

Then, in September 2014, Thile and Meyer released their latest album collaboration, Bass + Mandolin, which received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

When asked whether Fleck thought his diverse range of Grammy wins propelled more aspiring collaborators to come calling, he responded by affirming that every musical partnership is carefully considered before anybody ever sits down to jam.

"My collaborators are actually very carefully chosen. For instance, Chris and I have known each other since he was a kid, Chick Corea I'd been stalking since I was a kid," Fleck said, laughing. "It may look like I choose my partners willy nilly, but I'm actually very cautious and careful about who I'm playing with. Although I have to say I used to look at musical and instrumental combinations and avoided them because I didn't think they would work.

"And I missed some good opportunities, because I learned that the things that would make those collaborations hard, or challenging, are the very things that make it so special when it does work - for me and the audience."

Early in his career, Fleck may have faced some of his most challenging audiences as a street performer in Boston. But he said that year also instilled in him a talent for keeping audiences fully engaged.

"When you're playing on the street, if you don't hook them they're going to leave," Fleck said. "So how do you hook them playing banjo instrumental music? I learned it's not as much about jumping up and down and saying 'look at me.' I've found if you apply a deep focus to your craft, it will draw an engaged crowd just as easily as jumping around.

"Music itself can hold a crowd and that was really important to learn. I'm not a natural born performer, but I think people are really entertained because I'm just really working at being good at it. In fact, maybe the acrobatics take away from the musical performance."

Fleck also talked about an earlier visit he made to the Ives stage, that time during an August 1999 duo show accompanying Bruce Hornsby.

"It's mano-a- mano when you're in duo situations like you saw with Hornsby, and like what you're going to see with me and Chris," Fleck said. "The fewer people you play with, the more you have to be on your game because you have more responsibility.

"Obviously the most pressure is in a solo situation where you have to do everything. A duet is a little easier because you have someone to play off of, but it's still a high concentration and every note you play is critical - nothing can be wasted."

Among the early free Music Fest America headliners September 10 will be Six String Soldiers. Part of the United States Army Field Band, the four-member acoustic group featuring mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass performs Americana, folk, bluegrass, and Irish music.

Part of the Newtown Savings Bank Fine Arts and Family Series, Music Fest America is being presented by Ives Concert Park and Western Connecticut State University.

The event will take place rain or shine. WCSU's westside campus is at at 43 Lake Avenue Extension in Danbury.

Tickets are available at ticketfly.com. For more information, visit ivesconcertpark.com or facebook.com/ivesconcertpark.

Check out a sample of Fleck & Thile at Fox Theater, Oakland, 7/19/16


Chris Thile shreds on his mandolin at at Prescott Park Arts Festival, 7/17/16



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