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Nickel Creek’s Thile ‘grows’ a new band
By Alexa Hinton,
August 23, 2006
Heartbroken with the dissolution of his young marriage, 24-year-old mandolin player Chris Thile and childhood friend and fiddler Gabe Witcher followed the remedy prescribed in any bluegrass song of love gone bad.

“We got together one night just to drop a ton of money, drink too much wine, eat steaks, and commiserate about our failed relationships,” Thile said.

But in the light of humility, a new band grew.

“We had gotten to play together a few days before and we had said that we needed to do something musical together. With our hearts smashed to pieces, it became more urgent — our lives had gone the same way for so long,” Thile said. “I knew I wanted to have a band with Gabe, but I didn’t know if it would be a rock ensemble, an ambitious acoustic classical thing or a bluegrass group.”

With their individual music virtuosity, the two California natives could have taken their sapling band in any direction.

Thile, a member of the Grammy-award winning bluegrass-turned-acoustic rock band Nickel Creek, has played alongside and collaborated with Dolly Parton, Bela Fleck, Jon Brion, the Dixie Chicks and Mike Marshall. And since the age of 12, he has released six solo records: five bluegrass and one rock.

In high demand as a session and concert tour fiddler, Witcher, 28, has been asked to play on countless soundtracks and albums for artists like Lyle Lovett, Lee Ann Womack and Merle Haggard, and soundtracks such as Brokeback Mountain and Toy Story. He’s toured with Beck, Eve 6, Willie Nelson, and is currently playing with Jerry Douglas who is opening for Paul Simon.

The band truly took root after Thile was thrown on stage with banjo player Noam Pickelny at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Thile said he was blown away by “this kid tearing it to shreds” on his instrument.

“We played, and there was a serious, instantaneous connection. Then I knew I wanted to put together a bluegrass band — one with a lot of range, but aesthetically a bluegrass band,” Thile said.

The remaining guitar and bass spots were filled after Pickelny invited Chris “Critter” Eldridge and Greg Garrison to join himself and Thile in a Nashville jam session.

Named for their evolution, the group is calling themselves How to Grow a Band and will be debuting tunes from their new album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, at the Belcourt Theatre on Aug. 30. The album, which was recorded live around two microphones, will be released Sept. 12. So much buzz has been generated over this fledgling quintet that another show was added for the evening after the first sold out.

While ostensibly a bluegrass album, Thile and company push the genre’s boundaries with covers of The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage.” Each stands alone as a self-contained performance, but together, the suite of songs tell a story of loss that bleeds into hope — one that echoes the journey through heartbreak Thile recently experienced.

“It begins with the power of a relationship [“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”] as brought to us by Jack White, and then the utter desolation that comes from the dissolution of a great relationship, and the subsequent meanderings to the darker side of How to Grow a Woman from the Ground where the character comes close to killing himself — he drains just enough blood before killing himself, though the song might imply that he went all the way,” Thile said.

The album ends with the promise of new beginnings with two songs Thile wrote. “I’m Yours If You Want Me” is the character conceding that he’s ready to give love a shot again even for all the difficulties a relationship presents, and the last — an instrumental — is the new love interest’s response.

“I assume if you hear this pretty little fiddle tune in D, you know the girl goes, ‘Awesome, let’s try,’” Thile said.

Like the character in the album, Thile’s wounds may have healed, but that doesn’t mean How To Grow a Band is a one-project collaboration. Thile said Nickel Creek will be taking the fall off and he plans to throw himself entirely behind cultivating his new band.

“We’ve constructed this supergroup of sorts for the instrumentalists in my generation — these guys are all at the top of the pile for their respective instruments, and the atmosphere we want to create is like The Band who grew up together and actually lived in a house together. I think they achieved a level of music telepathy that hasn’t been matched since and we’d like to get there. The reason we are keeping this going is because it didn’t sound like me assembling a band, it sounded like we were brothers.”

What: Chris Thile and How to Grow a Band

When: 9:30 p.m. Aug. 30

Where: Belcourt Theatre, 2102 Belcourt Ave.

Cost: $17 in advance, $19 day of show


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