August 12, 2002
Comment in response to my review of Nickel Creek's latest CD: "Chris Thile's amazing skill on the mandolin has nothing to do with his perceived (by some) role as the leader of the pack."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Regarding my review in the Chicago Tribune of Nickel Creek’s This Side, and the word “lead”:
In that sentence, I said:
“The disc's lone instrumental, the opening bouzouki-blues, 'Smoothie Song' is the only point where one will find anything approaching hot licks, which in itself is striking considering that collectively Nickel Creek, led by mandolinist Chris Thile--himself a modern day grafting of Mozart and Charlie Parker--is the best band of pickers in the business.”
In that instance, I am referring to their abilities as instrumentalists (pickers), and I consider Chris to be the most exceptional of three exceptional players, and in that way, yes, I do consider him the lead guy.
But the larger question is whether CT is the leader of NC. Officially, nope. But perception is, if anything, more important, as is the human tendency to designate someone as a leader. New Grass Revival's leader was Sam Bush, which certainly is no insult to Bela Fleck, John Cowan, Pat Flynn, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, or Courtney Johnson. John Duffy was usually perceived as the leader of the Seldom Scene, even though they are still together well after his death. There are countless other examples, in bluegrass, rock, jazz, you name it.
CT has three solo albums out, plus a duo album with Mike Marshall due. He is by far the highest profile individual member of the band away from the band, including some very high-profile session work (Dolly Parton, Mark O'Connor, etc.). He is the guy in the band who does the majority of the MC work from the stage, and plenty of lead singing, and is the visual focal point of the group more times than not.
And perhaps most importantly, CT is one of the musical giants of our time (IMO), having set a new standard on his instrument. I don't mean he is just a superb player, but he is the guy who has redefined his instrument for the next generation, like Sam Bush did before him. That cannot be said about Sean or Sara, which is by no means a slam against them. CT is in a very special class, like Bela Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, and others like them who are in a category all their own on their instruments.
So, while NC is definitely an ensemble where all three members are critical to the sound and success of their music, it is no insult to Sean and Sara to view CT as the lead person in the band, even if he is not the designated or official leader.
Funny how one word in a review ends up requiring twice as many words than the review itself ;-)