Film Review: How to Grow a Band

Fans of the progressive-bluegrass prodigy Chris Thile will enjoy this look at his stripped-down struggles to introduce audiences to his new avant-garde fusion of bluegrass and classical. The documentary is as straightforward as the music is quixotic.
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Dissatisfaction must be built in to the human genome. And while that can spur innovation and a desire to make things better, faster, stronger, it can also make even the most intensely talented people feel like they're doing something wrong by doing what's been working—and then rather than build organically on their accomplishments, they try to force themselves to go places that, as in the case of mega-mandolinist Chris Thile, is somewhere that neither audiences nor even his band members particularly want to go.

For Thile aficionados, that means a down-home, down-to-earth downer, as the Grammy Award-winning child prodigy of the progressive-bluegrass hit-maker Nickel Creek, now with his new band Punch Brothers, crisscrosses the U.S. and dabbles in Europe trying to push his dream project: bluegrass/classical fusion.

A musicologist might respect and appreciate that ambition, even though the chasm between the folksy accessibility of bluegrass and the formal structuralism of classical seems too wide for most listeners outside the avant-garde. And indeed, we see the reaction of a Scottish audience to the 40-minute, four-movement suite "The Blind Leaving the Blind" as stone-silent boredom punctuated by the odd rude outburst—resulting in bassist Greg Garrison's not-unreasonable observation in the car later that perhaps they ought to take audience desires and expectations into consideration and leaven this more challenging stuff out in doses.

Thile is bit too much of a purist to go along with that, leading to some dissatisfaction in the ranks. The affable 27-year-old seems to genuinely believe his band is a democracy, saying that though everyone advised him that Punch Brothers should have been "like, Chris Thile and Friend," he felt that "this group of guys was a bigger deal than me." Nonetheless, banjoist Noam Pikelny gripes with the others later that while Thile's "a musical genius…I would rather do something that's truly collaborative where everybody's being fulfilled rather than doing something that's the most staggering."

It's easy to see why Thile wants to test the boundaries at so young an age. Born into a musical family, adept at mandolin by age five, he'd originated in traditional bluegrass. From 1989 to 2006, with a half-dozen Nickel Creek albums, two of them certified gold, he and siblings Sara and Sean successfully evolved a contemporary form of bluegrass, and became festival faves in the process. Thile's 2004 divorce from his fashion-designer wife, Jesse Meighan (who's never mentioned), after just 18 months of marriage (a time frame also never mentioned) is widely considered the catalyst for his musical experimentation, and onstage in 2008, four years after the fact, he's still wearing his heart on his sleeve and telling audiences how he's working through his feelings with his music. There hasn't been such a morose divorced guy since Felix Unger.

We hear from Thile's friend Yo-Yo Ma and from fan John Paul Jones, ex of Led Zeppelin. And near the end there's a pleasant-enough Punch Brothers concert segment, shot at Manhattan's Time Warner Center with the city a jeweled backdrop outside the glass wall. But as Thile said in a San Francisco Chronicle interview around this time, "This music could not be less accessible to bluegrass fans, not that that was the point… There's no point to prove. It's just how we're hearing things these days."

How to Grow a Band—the title taken from an earlier name of the Punch Brothers—has the plain and simple virtues of bluegrass itself but unfortunately none of the dynamism. It's a case study of a musician either seeing farther than the rest of us dare dream or one tilting at a musical windmill that most of us don't want to hear.