The level of excitement surrounding steadily gestating mandolin prodigy Chris Thile, and his newish band the Punch Brothers, is a bit of a curiosity—until you look at the album covers. Thile, who broke up the bluegrass group he’d helmed since the age of 10 to pursue a less-likely-to-be-pigeon-holed fusion of chamber strings and old-time music, might be expressing unprecedented sonic goals in myriad interviews, but his aural product isn’t much different from the Django Reinhardt-goes-hillbilly sound David Grisman chased in the ‘70s, and its spirit reminds one of Electric Light Orchestra first few outings, if a bit gentler, more “country.”
What is different is Thile himself; barely 30, he openly discusses his recent divorce with audiences while appearing perpetually like an American Idol loser, his cockscomb of feathery hair poofed up to discourage predatory advances. He sings with honesty about taking women out rather than getting drunk and slugging them, though he clearly knows his bluegrass shit; when profiled by Alec Wilkinson for a brief New Yorker piece, he talked about being perfunctorily schooled by Bill Monroe. Thile thus looks and acts like a genteel convergence of harsh traditions for which NPR listeners everywhere have been waiting, and the sexiness of this idea counterbalances the often sterile, derivative nature of his virtuosity.
One can’t speak of Mark Meatto’s documentary profile, How to Grow a Band, without starting squarely with Thile, because the movie is unsurprisingly devoted to peddling the up-and-comer as something daring, something new. More of an LP supplement than a documentary proper, the film offers a selection of archival videos that track the dynamo’s artistic growth through adolescence before landing in the late aughts, during an unexplained rotation of accomplices and a “fresh direction” represented with talking-head anecdotes and a surfeit of concert footage. The title of the movie thus refers not to the formation of the Punch Brothers per se (we only get the story of how fiddler Gabe Witcher joined and the rest of the personnel just sort of show up), but to the road from putative ingenuity to (implied) market acceptance.
“People feel like this is my flight of fancy that they need to protect me from,” says Thile at one point. And indeed, in an early scene, a concert audience expecting a hoedown heckles the players midway through a lengthy, classical-tinged opus, “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Later, backstage, the musicians humbly admit their fright at the reception, and a few band members suggest splitting the composition up for live performance. Thile refuses with patience rather than belligerence, and the movie trudges on without noting that the event was an advertising blunder first and foremost—more a case of mistaken identity than musical intolerance. Soon after this sequence, Witcher fondly alerts us to Thile’s childhood practice of picking out Paganini tunes on the mandolin while using the toilet, and the implication is all too obvious: Genius this dedicated surely has the right to baffle listeners into petulance.
When the other “brothers” aren’t genuflecting to Thile’s punkish skill, they’re wondering how long the gig will last, since the desultory artist hasn’t had many qualms about ditching friends and lighting out for the territory in the past. The expected ruthlessness of this tendency aside, it’s a particular fear that I wish was better explored in How to Grow a Band; in what way, for example, does unemployment anxiety galvanize performance? The Punch Brothers’ looming dissolution might furthermore be the best metaphor for their music, which favors flurries of mellifluous notes scurrying nowhere. How to Grow a Band, which pompously rambles through Thile’s touring schedule, at the very least aptly mirrors this aesthetic.