How to Grow a Band
May 11&12, and 18 & 19, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
For anyone looking to gain practical music-business insights from watching How to Grow a Band — a new documentary about the Punch Brothers — the message could be a little depressing. The recipe for growing a band, in this case, is to start with five supremely talented young (but seasoned) musicians, one of whom was a child prodigy and is now basically a virtuosic volcano. There should be sparks and sizzle at your first get-together. Then tour and practice relentlessly. Be sure to throw any non-musical personal life out the window. And, if you happen to not be that instrumental genius of the group, be prepared to follow the musical whims of your leader, no matter how commercially risky.
The Punch Brothers are the group formed by mandolin superstar Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) after he left the award-winning young bluegrass/country group Nickel Creek. As the documentary mentions but doesn’t explore, he formed the Punch Brothers right after getting a divorce as well. Obviously Thile’s personal life was unmoored when the Punch Brothers project came together. “He was in bad shape,” says Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher of Thile during that period.
How to Grow a Band opens in 2008 with the relatively new band playing its first dates in the U.K. (The film just premiered with limited screenings in New York this month, and we’re lucky to have it showing at Real Art Ways in Hartford.) We see footage of Thile on stage (27 at the time), basically shredding on the mandolin, playing extended an solo that sounds like a mix of combustible bluegrass hot-dogging, explosive gypsy-jazz, wide-open jam-band explorations, Hendrix-like exuberance and more tricky avant-classical chromatic unfurling. In a few seconds it’s clear: this guy is amazing.
In case we need independent corroboration, John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) and Yo-Yo Ma attest to Thile’s impressive talents. There’s old footage of Thile playing as a young kid, looking like he’d pretty much mastered the instrument by the age of 6 or so. We get glimpses of Nickel Creek at the height of their success, accepting awards, playing national TV, basking in the renewed popular interest in bluegrass and old time in the wake of the reception of the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou?
His first band broke up in part because he and his colleagues “lost control over the mechanism that was Nickel Creek,” Thile tells the camera. “It got out of our control somehow.”
Control seems to be what Thile most craves, though he doesn’t come off as some kind of scheming iron-fisted mastermind. If control is what he wanted, though, why start another band? Why not go solo, since he’s so obviously a staggering talent on his instrument? Turns out that Thile’s towering ambition requires a crack team of musicians, not a bunch of competent sidemen. Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge describes the band’s first casual jam session as “like falling in love with a girl, like going on the greatest first date you’ve ever been on.” And Thile, despite his past troubles with losing control over a creative project, knows that a collaboration with his band mates is central to his vision, even if they’re playing his music. “This group of guys was a bigger deal than me,” says Thile.
The film is part road documentary — following the band on tour, backstage and in vans — and part concert movie, with long pieces of live footage, uninterrupted by talk. The music the Punch Brothers make is challenging — both to play and to listen to. It’s a mix of bluegrass and “formal music” as the band its handlers like to say. Thile and his bandmates introduce audiences to “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” a 40-minute piece of chamber music — a string quintet written for bluegrass instruments — interspersed with song elements. It’s like Bill Monroe having a faceoff with Bela Bartok at times. (It’s partly about Thile’s divorce). The music is very modern, jarring and dissonant in places; fast-moving angular passages tumble into slow unspooling stretches filled with tension and uncertainty. But just in time the vocals emerge, sounding like snippets of Appalachian hymns. The response is evidently mixed. We see Thile chewing out a manager or a promoter over the phone about being billed as “hot bluegrass” at their first show in Scotland. The band gets heckled by a seemingly sauced audience member that night in Glasgow. The crowd, it seems, wants blistering banjo breakdowns and close vocal harmonies, none of this spiky and brooding chamber music. (Though that could be played up for dramatic effect.)
Getting razzed forces the band to consider restructuring its sets — chopping up that 40-minute art piece into smaller bits and throwing the bluegrass fans a bone before launching into the challenging long-form composition. Should they stick to their guns or give in to the imperatives of being entertainers?
How the band pursues its artistic vision and how the members cope with the pressure (there is a personnel shake-up) — in addition to the beautiful and occasionally mind-blowing performances — is what makes this film a pleasure to watch. It helps that Thile is a likable genius. He may have, as an anecdote told in the film says, played Paganini on his mandolin while sitting on the toilet, because he didn’t want to lose valuable practice time. And despite his virtuosity, Thile seems to still be anxious about maintaining his talent.
Speaking to the camera Thile says: “If you let [the music] out of your fingers for a second it’s gonna,” and he trails off. “It’s not like riding a bike.”
Though the film doesn’t take us up to the present, the band has continued to advance its music, and Thile has continued to push the mandolin into places one normally doesn’t see it. He performed his Mandolin Concerto with a chamber orchestra at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.
How to Grow a Band demonstrates that the most transcendent music making is often collaborative. And, no matter how talented you are, that takes other people. On the subject of playing with a band, Thile says this: “I’m trying to be more than I am naturally.”
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