Is it possible to have a successful band when its members may not be musical equals, even if they are all very talented virtuosos? It was a central question in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous about the often bickering, fictional band Stillwater, which had a guitarist who had musically surpassed his peers. Since it was also a film about a young rock critic following the band, we also got an inside look at how a poorly thought out quote in an interview could put the band at odds.
There are are scenes in Mark Meatto’s documentary, How to Grow a Band, about the progressive bluegrass band, Punch Brothers, that seem to be straight out of Almost Famous. Early in the film, guitarist Chris Eldridge reads out a magazine interview with their mandolinist and vocalist Chris Thile. In it, Thile gives Eldridge a back-handed compliment, now a source of tension. Thile claims he was misquoted.
Twenty-six-year-old Thile is the musical genius behind the band and everyone knows it, no matter how much he insists to the press that the group is fully democratic and collaborative. It is and they are, but they’re all also a little in his shadow, at least behind the scenes, if not in performance on stage. By the time Punch Brothers formed, he had already had a successful career as a Grammy-winning bluegrass musician with the band Nickel Creek, and had been counseled widely to treat the band as “Thile and friends” rather than as its own entity. It’s advice he intentionally ignored, but it’s still in the subtext of the band’s dynamics.
The other four members of this string quintet – guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny, bassist Bryan Sutton, and fiddler Gabe Witcher – often convene about a problem or strategy before bringing it to Thile, who can be pretty sensitive if they question his musical ambition in the service of being more accessible to an audience. The main point of contention is how to introduce the forty-minute suite for the string quintet that Thile composed about his recent failed marriage: can you start a show with something so strange and potentially alienating? Thile wants to challenge his audience, but if last Friday’s show at the SFJAZZ centre is any indication, he has since learned some important lessons from fellow Punch Brothers about the importance of appealing to an audience: these days he’s inviting and charismatic.
The film follows them on their first tour together as a band to promote their first album; this forty-minute suite was its centrepiece. And it’s most interested in Thile’s musical genius and how this weighs on the other members of the band. They’re glad for the opportunity to work with him and each other, but keenly aware that if they can’t keep Thile challenged, he won’t hesitate to move on. It’s a thoughtful portrait of the emotional investment that being in a band involves. But we don’t get much insight into how the tensions get resolved since the film only takes place over a couple of months: how do they ultimately get audiences to listen? And how did they get from the somewhat abstruse material they started with in 2008 to the highly accessible 2011 album “Who’s Feeling Young Now”, released the year before the film was?
There are many great live performances captured in the film; it gives us a sense of the genre-crossing the band does, melding bluegrass, jazz, classical, and even pop. And there’s some insight into how Thile’s personal life gets reflected in his work: in the rough patch after his divorce, he was more intense and abrasive with his audience, and mellowed once he found love. It’s unfortunate, though, that we don’t get to always see Thile’s vision lived – we know he’s a musical genius more from word-of-mouth than what’s shown in the film – so he often seems like quite a diva, and although the film centres around him, it manages to create a lot of empathy for his Punch Brothers.