‘How to Grow a Band,’ reviewed by Marshall Fine


“How to Grow a Band” is a perfect example of a missed opportunity: a front-row seat at the creation of a new artistic venture, in a film that never does more than skim the surface.

Director Mark Meatto apparently had exceptional access to superstar bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) at a turning point in his career. He’d just gotten two divorces: from his wife and from his long-time (and Grammy-winning) band, Nickel Creek.

As Meatto followed him, Thile had just put together a new group, the Punch Brothers, as a vehicle for his new musical ideas. Thile wanted to cast off the stylistic shackles of bluegrass and apply a more formal approach to his song-writing. Specifically, he assembled a string quintet – mandolin, violin, guitar, banjo and upright bass – and began writing multi-movement pieces that lasted up to 40 minutes, incorporating both lyrics and improvisation, upbeat tempos mixed with slower, spacier sections.

Then, with Meatto and his camera crew in tow, Thile took the new music to Great Britain – a hotbed of fanatics for American bluegrass – and sprung it on audiences in Glasgow and London.

The response was underwhelming. As the audience sat on its hands at the end of the piece in Glasgow, someone shouted, “Play some bluegrass.”

This leads to a minor tiff as the band drives around London, as bassist Greg Garrison talks about how uncomfortable the evening was, while Thile defends performing the piece. The issue is an intriguing one: Are they artists or performers? Are they there solely to entertain the audience? Or should they, as artists, challenge audience expectations by playing new music, rather than old favorites? And what if that new music sucks?

This review continues on my website.

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