Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Grow a Band: Punch Brothersmania

Chris Thile’s admirers probably see him as something like the Wynton Marsalis of bluegrass. A child prodigy with remarkable technique, Thile has tried to make rootsy string band music respectable for tony concert halls. Mark Meatto documents the getting-to-know-you tour endured by the band Thile recruited to realize his new ambitions in How to Grow a Band (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Grow centers around what was Thile’s riskiest composition at the time. The Blind Leaving the Blind is a forty minute through-composed suite for traditional string band quartet. There are plenty of precedents for such long form compositions beyond classical music (Thick as a Brick, anyone?), but for the very staid world of bluegrass, this was evidently quite daring. It flat-out bombed in Scotland. Some of the Punch Brothers suggest breaking it apart for their live shows, but Thile insists on charging ahead, regardless of audience reception. Just in case you have any doubts whether it really is all entirely about Thile, keep in mind the multi-movement piece is supposedly a tone poem for the dissolution of his marriage.

Thile sure can play, so the band obviously makes allowances. He can draw a ticket-buying public too, so if his concepts start to gel, being a Punch Brother will mean steady work in an uncertain business. Viewers might be less indulgent. Frankly, Thile often comes across rather high-handed, with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Eventually, there is a parting of ways with one Punch Brother, but Meatto conspicuously sweeps it under the rug. Suddenly, Paul Kowert is on bass and Greg Garrison is making excuses about his family not wanting to move to New York.

Still, using Blind Leaving the Blind as the film’s central touchstone gives viewers a good sense of the band’s range and musicianship. It is definitely a dynamic piece, inspiring some impassioned playing from the Punch Brothers. There is no question they are all talented, but whether they are fascinating personalities on-screen remains much more debatable.

Ironically, Grow, probably the highest profile bluegrass film since maybe Deliverance, shot performance footage in two great jazz venues, notably including Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s stunning Allen Room, a cinematic venue also open to outside presenters. Getting a camera assist from Note By Note director Ben Niles, the Allen concert is clearly the highlight of the Punch Brothers 1.0’s tour. Yet shortly thereafter, we also see Garrison returning to his jazz roots with a big band gig at Denver’s Dazzle Jazz.

Wisely, Meatto focuses on the music, which is quite distinctive. However, for those of us coming to the film from other musical traditions, Grow never makes a compelling case that this is something truly groundbreaking—and a little of Thile backstage goes a long way. Recommended for regular No Depression readers, but not necessarily for general audiences, How to Grow a Band opens tomorrow (4/13) in New York at the Village East.