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Béla Fleck, Chris Thile Join Musical Forces for DCA Show

On July 13, the audience at Door Community Auditorium will be treated to a double billing of two of the world’s most talented instrumentalists: banjo player Béla Fleck and mandolinist Chris Thile.

Thile is the Grammy-winning virtuoso mandolinist, singer and songwriter behind acoustic trio Nickel Creek and progressive acoustic outfit Punch Brothers. He is a MacArthur Fellow and this October, will take over hosting duties of the live radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion following the retirement of longtime host Garrison Keillor.

Fleck is considered one of the most technically proficient banjo players in the world, introduced to the masses through the bands New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Since 1998, he has been nominated in more Grammy categories – from country instrumental to spoken word for children – than any other musician in history.

There are a number of elements that unite the two musicians: early grasp of their respective instruments (Thile began playing mandolin at age 5 while Fleck picked up the banjo at age 15); a heavy influence of bluegrass in their early years; and a desire to stretch their musical skills beyond the confines of a particular genre (which Thile himself is particularly vocal about).

Mandolinist Chris Thile.

Mandolinist Chris Thile.

“What I’m interested in is great instances of music making which invariably rises to the top of whatever genre they might be associated with for whatever aesthetic reason and enter in the only genre that really matters, which is good music,” Thile said. “What we hope to be doing is making good music for you and one suspects that it will be fairly diffused as far as the natural aesthetic goes although it will be made with a banjo and a mandolin.”

Despite a 22-year age gap, Thile and Fleck have known each other about that long, having met at a music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina when Thile was just 15. Musically speaking, though, Thile considers their relationship to have begun in his childhood home.

“My parents bought Béla’s record Drive and we wore that thing out,” Thile said. “That’s a hugely influential record amongst the members of our little acoustic music community. Béla just kind of blew the doors off of the bluegrass instrumental building. That record was akin to the Wizard of Oz going from black and white to color.”

At the time, Thile was playing with Sean and Sara Watkins in the band Nickel Creek. Due to the band’s fest-playing schedule, Thile was homeschooled, providing him the time to learn Fleck’s music, particularly his 1995 release Tales From the Acoustic Planet.

“I would just take it into my room and come out knowing another one of the songs with the improvised solos and everything,” Thile said. “Every note of them. In a way, Béla was kind of my Michael Jordan, the kids at the time were Michael Jordan fans or Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, whatever it was. For me it was Béla Fleck.”

When he finally got to meet him during a jam session in North Carolina less than a decade later, it was an intense moment for the young Thile. But it wasn’t until a meeting at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival years later that their relationship would start developing into something more.

Fleck remembers his first impression of the young mandolinist who had essentially devoured his catalogs whole.

“I thought he was an amazing young player but I didn’t get a sense of what he would become that first time,” Fleck said. “It became clear pretty soon though that he would be one of the greatest ever.”

Their familiarity with each other’s music, along with what Thile describes as a shared “musical dialect,” has been the springboard to growing collaborations. For the past decade, they’ve talked about creating a duo project, something they are finally taking the first steps toward.

“We were down there in my basement here in Portland, Oregon about a month ago and earnestly writing together for the first time,” Thile said. “We’ve done a little bit here and there but this is the first focused writing ever. That easy conversation that develops between two people who really know each other, it was striking. It’s as is if we’ve been doing this for years and years. Maybe that’s the value in waiting this long to get serious is that it really takes flight immediately. I’ve never had an easier time writing with someone, I’ll say that.”

Some of those new collaborations will be performed at DCA on July 13, along with each of the musician’s individual songs and some “miscellaneous odds and ends.”

Béla Fleck and Chris Thile will perform at DCA at 8 pm on Wednesday, July 13. Tickets for the concert range from $49 to $79. Advance reservations are recommended and can be made through the DCA box office, located at 3926 Hwy. 42 in Fish Creek. The box office is open Monday through Friday, noon until 5 pm. Tickets can be purchased in person, on the phone at 920.868.2728, or online at DCAuditorium.org.

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