That one time I saw Chris Thile live and had a religious experience

The show was starting: Live From Here at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park — the heart of the north shore Chicago ‘burbs (home of Ferris Bueller and other fantastic John Hughes movies).

For me and my wife, it was our first date night since moving here a year ago — a night I’d been looking forward to for months, long before the tickets were live on the website.

I’m a huge Chris Thile fan. It’s actually kind of a pain/joy dichotomy; as much as I marvel at his musical mastery, I’m equally as pissed that my parents didn’t force me to play an instrument when I was a kid. (I know what you’re thinking: it’s never too late to learn — but it does get more difficult as the clock tics on and our brain synapses and fingers harden from time.)

If you’re familiar with the Live from Here show (previously known as A Prairie Home Companion under Garrison Keillor), it’s a throwback to radio shows of old. A 2-hour mishmash of storytelling, music, news, comedy, and op-ed.

But Thile… Thile is the main event; the best mandolin player that ever lived in my humble opinion. Not just a mandolin ‘player’, but a mandolin virtuoso. He’s effectively taken a dinky, laughable instrument and recorded Bach sonatas with it.

Amazing.

As we entered the amphitheater, we were seated eight rows from the front, smack-dab in front of Thile as he lightly strummed to a tune he’d just made up and played at a friend’s wedding.

I was captivated. Apparently, this was a treat that only live attendees got to behold as it was just before the show started broadcasting to millions of listeners on the radio.

After the song, Thile did a quick, awkward moment of silence as the live broadcast got synced up and then — bam — we were live. Applause. Fanfare. The show lit up.

I’ll spare you the details, but the show was incredible with music from Gabby Moreno, Hawktail, Parker Milsap, Julian Lage, and comedy from Tom Papa who did a reading from his new book, Your Dad Stole My Rake: And Other Family Dilemmas (hilarious, btw).

All of that was great, but what I really want to hone in on in this post is Thile (obviously). Not his musical prowess, necessarily, but the absolute, unhindered FUN he was having the entire show.

Thile expressed such a humble enjoyment. He had a number of musicians up on stage with him and was visibly blown away by their gifts. As they were playing, he’d be just offstage with his hands in his hair and a huge toothy grin on his face, like, out-of-his-mind elated.

Here’s the thing… Thile has been playing mandolin since he could walk. He was a child phenom. You’d think he might not be so enthusiastic about music 30-some years later.

But he totally is.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

— Dr. Howard Thurman, theologian and civil rights leader

Somehow, his folks threw him into something that was a match for his soul. He was a child prodigy that maintained his art (and his celebrity) into his thirties without growing apart from himself (unlike the trajectories of Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan, Aaron Carter, etc.).

For him, it’s the music. This is someone who’s uncontrollably in love with the music.

I’m sure it hasn’t been peaches and unicorns getting there. I know he’s had his share of bad days — really bad days. Strumming away for hours to get that one riff just right. The touring and the failed relationships (a’la his divorce years ago) and everything else that may have gone along with it. As Mark Manson puts it, there’s always the shit sandwich that must be eaten along with any lasting vocation.

But if the results of those bad days and shit sandwiches is an energetic enthusiasm the likes of which Thile displayed on stage that night, I’d say it’s all worth it.

Thile is the epitome of the sacredness of vocation. Of craft.

And so, a word to you, in closing…

May you find your vocation.

May you never stop until you find the thing that brings you unending joy and fulfillment.

May both the good days and the bad days bring you closer to the center of yourself.

And may you express your joy and enthusiasm in such a way that makes us want to find our thing too.

Before you go…

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