Review: Genre-hopping quartet put on dazzling show

Yo-Yo Ma
Cincinnati Enquirer

By David Lyman

Midway through the second half of “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion Tuesday night, bassist Edgar Meyer stepped forward to introduce the next piece, titled “Bach.”

He explained that Bach wrote his “Gamba Sonata No. 1” in two different ways – “neither of which was for mandolin, cello and bass.” It was a great laugh line. But it is that unorthodox mix of instruments that is at the heart of this show’s appeal.

Because any way you look at it, the four musicians who make up this genre-hopping supergroup constitute a string quartet.

Yo Yo Ma is one of the most distinguished cellists of the classical music world. Meyer, a bass player who moves easily from the classical world to jazz and bluegrass, is also a prominent composer. Violinist Stuart Duncan, who also plays mandolin, banjo and guitar, is one of the bluegrass world’s most dazzling virtuoso players. And Chris Thile . . . well, it’s hard to categorize Thile. The lead singer for Nickel Creek, he is best-known for his remarkable inventiveness on the mandolin.

Thile, incidentally, is the showman of the group. Some of that comes from the mobility afforded by his instrument. But he is an outgoing and irrepressible performer. He leans and lunges, bends and bobs his feet. At times, in fact, you’re convinced he is going to launch into a reel. He never does, but his physicality and sheer joy of playing makes him the one performer you can’t take your eyes off.

Clearly, this is an unlikely foursome. But then, that’s the point of The Goat Rodeo Sessions; given the incentive and the drive, good musicians will make good music together.

The name, we are told, describes a situation where you need dozens of things to go right to avoid disaster. And, I suppose, that’s what it must have felt like when they first got together, each a high-profile musical superstar with his own strengths and opinions. The idea of corralling all of that into a single, cohesive collaboration must have seemed daunting.

But they succeeded. And the result is a genre-hopping musical supergroup, a dazzling show filled with tour de force performances.