“I had a couple things. Right here –” A bass line sounds. “Exaggerate. Draw it out. And when we get to the bridge…”
Mike Elizondo is standing behind Live From Here host Chris Thile and singer/songwriter Madison Cunningham on the Palace Theatre stage, an electric bass strapped around his torso and black T-shirt. He’s living out his duties as musical director, helping shape the sound of the show. And the pressure’s on. In just over 24 hours, the band will perform this song – Cunningham’s “Plain Letters” – and many more for a live audience.
Elizondo is the newly hired musical director of Live From Here, replacing longtime MD/pianist Richard Dworsky. But he is no stranger to the show. His extensive résumé includes production work for Sheryl Crow and Maroon 5, writing credits on 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” – and a handful of gigs playing bass on Live From Here during Thile’s tenure as host. “From doing the show the last couple of seasons,” he says, “Chris and I developed a friendship.”
The original iteration of Live From Here, A Prairie Home Companion, meant a lot to many people. But Elizondo is a Chris Thile fan first. They met years ago while jamming behind Fiona Apple; Elizondo has kept tabs on his work since then. “Chris is a once-in-a-lifetime musician,” Elizondo says. “I equate [him] with Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Every generation, you get these standout musicians who are just on another level.” So his motivation to fill the musical director chair “starts with Chris Thile and ends with Chris Thile.”
That’s not to say the decision was easy. As a husband, full-time songwriter/producer, and father of four, Elizondo worries about balancing his work and Los Angeles family life. He and his wife took several days to decide whether or not to accept Thile’s offer. But “after I mulled it over for a while,” he says, “it was something I couldn’t pass up.” His current commitment to the show – which includes rehearsing, performing, and scheming with Thile – hovers around 20 hours per week.
So far, though, it’s paying off. As someone who has worked with artists from Dr. Dre to Carrie Underwood, he enjoys the variety of music on Live From Here. He says, “One minute, you can be playing a classical piece from the 20th century. Or you could be playing some bluegrass or Rage Against the Machine. It’s a lot of fun to jump around like that.”
At his studio space, he likes to jump around with instruments. “I’m always trying to maintain the bass instrument, especially on the upright bass,” he says. He loves the whole mandolin family, including mandocello and mandola. He’s also trying to teach himself the pedal steel. “It’s so foreign to me, the way that the instrument’s tuned,” he explains. “You kind of strum it like a guitar, but it’s such a unique instrument once you involve the pedals.”
As the Live From Here team tries to widen the appeal of a show some might call fusty, it feels natural to refocus on music. “Music is such a powerful way of communicating and making people feel,” Elizondo points out. “[It] has a way of bringing all types of people together. It’s very inclusive.”
So every Friday before a show, they spend hours shaping songs. “What’s the underlying chord right there?” someone asks during last week’s Live From Here rehearsal. “I’m not sure. I think it might be G,” Thile answers, and the musicians fiddle with a phrase. Later, Thile suggests a change to the music charts, and Elizondo promises to pass it along to the copyists.
The whole band shares the Palace Theatre stage, rehearsing for the first of two St. Paul shows this month. The mood is lively but deliberate, with few distractions. Limited shenanigans are inherently musical; a band member adds a schlocky piece of percussion during a run-through of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.” Elizondo smiles and starts plucking at his upright bass, the closest he ever gets to hamming it up.
Despite a rich roster of professional responsibilities, Elizondo says he’s missed live performance. He played in a rock band after high school, and he cut his teeth playing session bass. But he hasn’t had a regular gig in 15-20 years. He’s grateful, he says, that the show offers him the opportunity to perform live more consistently.
Throughout rehearsal, Elizondo isn’t the only one giving feedback. While the band works on “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” Thile suggests “slamming” into the opening measures, making the verses stand out by contrast. Once they get going again, he hops around behind his mandolin. “This kind of music makes me so happy.”
From all appearances, he’s not the only one. As Thile tries out phrasings, Elizondo cruises on bass in the background: his favorite place to be. He listens intently to every other player. He has his family’s blessing on a challenging, creative new musical project. Wherever Here is…let’s hope he stays a while.
The Fitzgerald Theater will host Elizondo and the rest of Live From Here on Saturday, Oct. 20. The episode airs on The Current at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21.