The upcoming Clearwater Festival’s roster of acts is so extravagantly overstuffed with “name” talent, it is hard to say exactly what and who stand out. Ani DiFranco appears to be the nominal headliner, followed closely by Martin Sexton, Béla Fleck, Loudon Wainwright III, earnest California roots rockers Dawes (sticking around, one imagines, after their Mountain Jam set), at least two acts named Chapin and a host of other household names, folk royalty and going concerns in multiple genres.
If all music is folk music, as Louis Armstrong once said of sharing a bill with Pete Seeger in the ‘50s, then this is a folk festival. But the musical fusions on display at the Clearwater Festival are often audacious and confrontational in a way that taxes any meaningful definition of folk, straddling great expanses of time and space and yoking far-flung traditions together. Balkan Beat Box fuses Klezmer and Eastern European modes with electronica and hip hop attitude. Malian revolutionaries Tinariwen play a familiar-but-utterly-foreign desert blues.
It all goes down under the tall shadow of Pete Seeger’s old banjo, though, and it is not hard to imagine the old guard benignly wondering what has happened to their riverside folk weekend. Those of a traditional bent might even feel a touch of relief and gladness when, on Saturday at 2:30, the Punch Brothers take the Rainbow Stage, looking every bit like a young bluegrass quintet with a mind and a wardrobe toward the past. This feeling will last precisely until the moment that the band starts to play.
If the Punch Brothers play liberally from their last two studio albums – the Jon Brion-produced Antifogmatic (2010) and the Jacquire King-produced Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) – they will easily be amongst the most musically challenging and genre-subverting acts on the bill, all the more for their deceiving/comforting appearances. The Punch Brothers have little to do with traditional bluegrass beyond their weapons of choice: mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, upright bass and ensemble vocals. They can rock the socks off it whenever they please, as when, led by banjoist Noam Pikelny, they pay tribute to the recently departed Earl Scruggs; but they are more likely to cover Of Montreal or Radiohead on an average night.
Okay, so they’re irreverent “progressive bluegrass” in the mode of fellow Clearwater performer Béla Fleck and the other descendents of David Grisman’s “Dawg music,” a chops-heavy jazz/grass fusion with its own rich legacy? Or they’re the next step in the stunning quasi-classical chamber folk of the Edgar Meyer/Yo Yo Ma/Mark O’Connor/Stuart Duncan scene? No, and no. The Punch Brothers can shred with any of them, but they’re after something very different.
It is in fact much easier to describe the Punch Brothers in terms of what they’re not, because what they are is so multi-mode and slippery. As a baseline, though, position them right at the center of the progressive indie moment, alongside Andrew Bird or Feist, although the Punch Brothers are in their own way more difficult and compositionally ambitious than either. Their songs routinely run six or more through-composed minutes, with little to no jamming involved. Stylistically, they’ll go anywhere, from funk to tango to an astonishingly convincing faux electronica to…yes, bluegrass. But as songwriters they are clearly more about a rarefied, Beatles-derived art song than any American trad. When loosed, their collective chops are staggering and bottomless, but they are more often harnessed in the service of intricate, textural ensemble arrangements than burning solos.
Tellingly, the Punch Brothers are billed – for the Clearwater Festival alone, apparently –as “the Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile.” This is, after all, a band fronted by one of the brightest new-school prodigies of the folk genres in former Nickel Creek mandolinist Thile. Clearwater wants you to know this. Thile has literally grown up under the spotlight and microscope of this particular community of interest. But do they even know what musical curveballs he and his mates have in store? On record, the Punch Brothers make precious few concessions to Thile’s antecedents.
Or let’s explore another possibility. For all their uncompromising musical ambition, the Punch Brothers are crowd-pleasers. They offset their arty epics with frequent, rollicking relief in the form of songs like “Rye Whiskey” and the charmingly lecherous swing of “Patchwork Girlfriend,” and, live, Thile has a manic, goofball energy that doesn’t much come across on record. Perhaps the Punch Brothers will tailor a set for this audience and this occasion and be what the bill wants them to be.
In any case, it won’t be a “Dylan at Newport” cataclysm if they don’t. As mentioned, this is already a progressive, challenging Festival lineup. It is just striking that one of the most rule-defying, confrontational acts on the roster will hit the stage looking for all the world like the requisite nod to the past.
The Clearwater Festival happens at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson on June 16 and 17. For more lineup information and the ticket pricing structure, visit www.clearwater.org/festival/index.html. For more on the Punch Brothers, visit www.punchbrothers.com.