All five musicians had stellar careers before becoming Punch Brothers, but mandolin player Chris Thile (who is the focus of this film) was perhaps the most dazzling of the bunch, a "whiz kid" prodigy before the age of eight, playing accomplished guitar (as in this 1991 clip) and mandolin with a confidence and proficiency well beyond his years. From 1989 to about 2007 Thile played with Nickel Creek, winning recognition and a slew of awards.
Near the beginning of How to Grow a Band Thile describes his desire, following the dissolution of Nickel Creek and his own divorce, to head off in a different musical direction, composing and playing music that was to be "a blend of formal and folk." The first expression of this new direction turned out to be a four-part, 40-minute suite for string quintet that he titled "The Blind Leaving the Blind."
How to Grow a Band covers the first Punch Brothers tour, and shows the band playing sections from "The Blind Leaving the Blind" (and other new compositions) – to some resistance from audiences who had been expecting to hear traditional bluegrass tunes.
In addition to documenting these growing pains, How to Grow a Band allows the other Punch Brothers to express their concerns about the group's future, each anticipating the inevitable day when the ambituous Thile decides to turn his attention to other projects.
As of this writing The Punch Brothers are still together and still touring; in fact they will play at the Chan Centre on Saturday, November 24th (concert info here).
As a coda: Thile was one of 23 recipients of a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship, to the tune (if you'll pardon the pun) of $500,000. You'd think that that kind of money would last anyone a while – but bluegrass musicians may well be an exception to that general rule: a comment in this YouTube thread suggests that Thile has already spent about 40% of his windfall on "a Lloyd Loar 1924 F-5 mandolin" (the mandolin equivalent of a Stradivarius); serial number #75318, for those keeping track; lavish details available here for all mandolin-ophiles.
You can view a trailer for How to Grow a Band here.
There's one more VIFF screening of How to Grow a Band on Friday October 12th at 6:45 pm at Empire Granville 1.