July 6, 2010

GIVERS & GIFTS:

Behind Bluegrass Harmonies, a Trapdoor That Opens to New Beats (BEN RATLIFF, 7/06/10, NY Times)

Their music is full of trapdoors: weird harmony, dynamic shifts, staggered riffs, beats flipped over. This disposition has a lineage in 40 years of progressive bluegrass, and Saturday’s three-band minifestival at Caramoor, “New Shoots,” the first of a projected series, was showing you where the superlearned end of traditional American music has come to. It included Sandra Wong playing string music from around the world; and a Boston nouveau-bluegrass band, Crooked Still, pulled along by Aoife O’Donovan’s Alison Krauss-like singing and the virtuosic cellist Tristan Clarridge, with implicit funk and conservatory training everywhere.

But the Punch Brothers seem determined to move bluegrass furthest. Mr. Thile contains multitudes: he connects the full-hearted yodel of Jimmie Rodgers and the insecure falsetto of Thom Yorke; he looks a bit like Robert Pattinson, and talks in manic raps of hyper self-consciousness. (“I’m having an absurd amount of fun,” he announced, eyeing his audience hungrily.)

Noam Pikelny, the banjoist, played the foil, delivering saturnine jokes behind the beat. It’s in their humor — spoken and musical — where their bluegrass training comes through most.

More than half the concert came from the band’s new record, “Antifogmatic” (Nonesuch), and it was supremely entertaining, with constant diversions: the scraping and brushing of instruments during Mr. Thile’s otherwise unaccompanied solo in “Alex”; the complex intro and outro of “Don’t Need No” that have nothing to do with the meat of the song; the irresolute key and sudden appearance of five-part vocal harmony in “Me and Us.”

The problem is that some of the music seems like a music-school assignment, feels fraught with pride. It’s in the category of gifts that you can’t possibly feel as close to as its giver. Sometimes you wish the Punch Brothers knew less, or left more to chance.


-AUDIO: Bonnaroo 2010: Punch Brothers In Concert (NPR, 6/11/10)


Posted by Orrin Judd at July 6, 2010 5:35 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« THE CAUSE IS TOO IMPORTANT TO LET THE SCIENCE GET IN THE WAY: | Main | THE ONE WE CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON: »