Tuesday, September 1
Showtime: 8:00 PM
Chautauqua AuditoriumSold Out
Described by the New York Times as “American country-classical chamber music,” the Punch Brothers (Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass)) take the Chautauqua stage to showcase their T Bone Burnett-produced album, “The Phosphorescent Blues.”
The T Bone Burnett–produced “The Phosphorescent Blues,” addresses with straight-up poignancy and subversive humor the power and the pitfalls of our super-connected era. Digitally fueled isolation may be a theme, but this virtuosic acoustic quintet offers its warmest, most emotive and elegantly melodic work to date—so invitingly human in its approach that it practically ushers the listener into the room as these guys assemble in front of a mic.
Indeed, a longing for community and connection was both impetus and inspiration for this disc. Never a group that could be accused of taking it easy, Punch Brothers had been touring almost non-stop since the majority of them first got together to support mandolin player Chris Thile’s 2006 solo album, “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground.” But in February 2013, after supporting the 2012 disc “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”—an album in which, a New York Times reviewer opined, the band “shifted the emphasis from instrumental wizardry to playful storytelling” —Punch Bothers decided to scale back the concert schedule allowing themselves the chance to interact musically and personally, away from tour buses and dressing rooms.
As guitarist Chris Eldridge explains, “There was a sense among all of us that we needed to dial it back a little bit and really give ourselves time to write a record where we didn’t have deadlines and weren’t under pressure to get something out. So we scheduled these writing retreats.” One such retreat took place at Oberlin College, where the band had been invited to participate as artists in residence at its famed conservatory.
Over the course of the writing sessions, Thile relates, they had animated debates with each other and with the students, about how they relate to music, and to each other, through a digital filter. A narrative began to emerge that informs compositions like the rueful “I Blew It Off” and the ambitious, three-part opener, “Familiarity” which goes from spare and staccato to lilting and pastoral. No diatribes here: the words are often haunting and impressionistic, while the music boasts its own powerful eloquence.
“We started writing these songs,” notes violinist Gabe Witcher, “and had enough time to discover what they really are. And as we saw this story emerge, this narrative, we wanted to see if we could also tell the story sonically.”
“The Phosphorescent Blues” is, in many ways, a slice of modern life, says Thile: “Going out after shows, we’d go to bars that were loud, where the music may not be ideal, to be around other people, to get a sense of the world for a second. And I’d see people just like me on their phones, telling people they wish they were there, texting people who really are there. Then some song would come on in real time and some person knows that song and then they see that someone else does too and maybe they both sing it together and that moment is spiritual, some shared experience, and they are interacting in three dimensions, in the flesh, with their fellow man. And that’s communion. ‘Familiarity’ and other songs on this record dive into that: how do we cultivate beautiful, three-dimensional experiences with our fellow man in this day and age?”
Shortly before the sessions began, Thile and Witcher met with Burnett and discovered the producer had the very same things on his mind. In fact, he’d just given a commencement address at the University of Southern California on the subject of technology and human interaction. Witcher remembers, “Thile and I looked at each and said, ‘This is unbelievable. It’s exactly what we are writing about.’ So this was a perfect, serendipitous union.”
Burnett himself added a discreet amount of electric guitar, most noticeably on “I Blew It Off,” and even convinced the band to add percussion on some tracks, a first for a Punch Brothers disc—integrated so artfully into the mix by drummer Jay Bellerose that one has to listen twice to even know it’s there. On “Forgotten” and “My Oh My,” Witcher could overdub himself into an entire string section.
Final track “Little Lights” sums up “The Phosphorescent Blues,” a single-take recording that imagines countless smart phones held in the air as a symbol of hope and possibility, a 21st century twist on “This Little Light Of Mine.” At its climax, the band is actually joined by a digital choir of its fans. The band had tried overdubbing their own voices, but that sounded contrived. Then one night, while driving home in L.A., Witcher had a brainstorm: If they didn’t have the resources to assemble a choir in the studio, why not reach out directly to fans, via Twitter and their website, to add their voices? Eldridge reveals, “We received over a thousand submissions. It wasn’t about people singing well or badly; we just wanted everyone in there.”
“Little Lights” becomes a fitting, and genuinely uplifting, conclusion to “The Phosphorescent Blues,” as Punch Brothers address the questions they’ve posed about technology by conjuring up, in the course of the song, a very real virtual community. They used all the digital tools they had on hand, but it ultimately came together in a more familiar way, via words and music and voices.
Gabriel Kahane will open tonight’s show.