Punch Brothers and Gabriel Kahane review: Extending American traditions

Unexpectedly satisfying Oregon Bach Festival double bill features composer/musicians who add classical music dimension to bluegrass and singer-songwriter legacies

by DANIEL HEILA

One of the joys of live music is finding great music in unexpected persons and unconventional places.

When I first saw the Punch Brothers in 2010 at Pickathon in Happy Valley, Oregon, they were a tight group of virtuosos playing dazzling but frigid bluegrass-inflected compositions built on classical forms and ambition. But at this summer’s Oregon Bach Festival performance at Eugene’s Hult Center, Punch Brothers were a mature, smoothly operating entertainment force-of-nature whose ambitions have been fulfilled.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

I had no idea who their opening act, Gabriel Kahane, was, except that he is the son of pianist and Oregon Bach Festival regular, Jeffrey Kahane. In his opening set for the Punch Brothers, I discovered a gifted songwriter and performer who satisfied more than one of my aesthetic expectations of original American pop music: he sang with his own voice (not Colin Meloy’s, Ray Lamontagne’s, Tom Waits’, etc.), and he dealt with current and historic material in the language of his times. In an era of rampant artistic emulation, pseudo-folk theatricality, and thematic assimilation, Kahane transcends by delivering himself. Well, yes he does come off as Zach Galifianakis’s kid brother, but I don’t think he can help that.

Bluegrass at a Bach festival!?

Punch Brothers’ modus operandi was hanging erudite interpretations and sophisticated lyrics on bluegrass-influenced frameworks. There is still a lot of bluegrass in Punch: fiddle tunes; mandolin excess; flat-picking guitar; and Earl Scruggs-style, perpetual-motion banjo. But I’m not talking about John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” in a bluegrass rendering, but bluegrass through the lenses of a multitude of styles: jazz, funk, Gypsy swing, Broadway lyricism, Rudi Vallee, Randy Newman, the Beatles, reggae. The result is more akin to a nineteenth-century composer’s infatuation with Romani (Gypsy) music. In fact, even richer. I didn’t find the arresting, steely austerity of conservative bluegrass here, but I did experience the shivering unity of extremely tight vocal harmonies that has thrilled bluegrass audiences for decades. The evening’s flagship product of this approach was an off-kilter, Gypsy swing-ish arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Fantasizing what Nijinski would have done with this has me in a cold sweat.

In true bluegrass performance form, the band huddled around a single large-condenser microphone set at center stage, front. Throughout the evening, this set up yielded an intimate setting that showcased both the ensemble rapport and the solo skills of the band. At one point, banjo player Noam Pikelny quipped that the set up had him feeling nostalgic for the old days back in New York (when they were still on speaking terms) when all they could afford was a vintage, German large-condenser microphone. Very tongue in cheek: these mics can easily top $2,000.

This humor was a taste of the shtick that the band has cultured since last I saw them (arguably an inevitable manifestation of touring) and, in my mind, a warning sign of what may come. Having given in to the tired meta-folk tropes of “Howdy folks!” humbleness and Depression-era garb (to be fair, only the fiddle player), do they run the risk of heading down the path to aesthetic shallowness of such virtuoso cross-genre phenoms as Project TRIO? This is also a warning sign of having tapped out the vein that inspired their union.

Which, though it may be a sorry thought, isn’t a terrible concept in the long run as all the players have robust careers outside of Punch. On the brighter side, though not tradition itself, the Punch Brothers are an instrument of tradition. Their material has aged nicely and become a rich amalgam of traditional instrumentation, classical virtuosity, and pop sensibilities. Their larger, more expansive arrangements suited their virtuosity and produced ensemble synergy that had my spine tingling and the audience erupting in proto-lingual praise.

The bluegrass that is in their veins is genuine and undeniable, and their work together has proved the depth of the well that is the sound of a banjo, a fiddle, a guitar, a bass, a mandolin together—the depth of an iconic American art form.

American Original

A crisp, efficient humorist with an effortless stage presence (and just a twitch of Woody Allen mania), Kahane makes music that’s uniquely American (I embrace my indiscretion). Love and longing for places and spaces both extant and lost is an American musical tradition (one of my favorite examples is Peter Case’s “Entella Hotel“), and Kahane’s “Ambassador Hotel sets the bar heartbreakingly high. His accompaniment styles suited his songs’ subject matters intimately with subdued finger-picked guitar or piano phrasing that melded with the urgency of his vocal. I found myself startled and pleased by many of his lyrics—the Ambassador’s been bleeding out/and now they’ve let her die.

Gabriel Kahane performed twice at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Gabriel Kahane performed twice at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Many of Kahane’s pieces are ironic and humorous (both subtly and overtly) and he handles these characteristics artfully. However, I worry that his facility with this genre is such that he runs the risk of falling into merely clever output. His frumpy, self-deprecating antics later in the show with the Punch Brothers were a step in this direction. Most of my fears were allayed when I researched his catalog and found that he is a prolific creator of pop and art music of many forms. Examples of his larger projects are his Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States based on the WPA American Guide Series (a Depression-era government commission performed later at the Bach Festival) and Craigslistlieder, a song cycle based on actual Craigslist personal ads. He had me chuckling and laughing out loud with his selections from that piece—you looked sexy/when you were having a seizure, and from “Neurotic and Lonely”: no Uggs/no Long Island.

Kahane exploded his meta-hypster styling with a “trashy drum beat song” (complete with rinky-dink drum machine) that was a study on all the ways that Los Angeles has been destroyed in the movies and the eternal question of “why do all the villains live in houses designed by modernist masters?” Intelligent, witty, and sensitive, Gabriel Kahane was a welcome surprise for this uninitiated listener. I will be keeping an eye out for his next local performance.

Read ArtsWatch’s interview with Kahane.

Daniel Tapio Heila is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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