The Bowery Presents
American Acoustic with Punch Brothers, I'm With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O'Donovan), and Julian Lage

WFUV Presents

American Acoustic with Punch Brothers, I'm With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O'Donovan), and Julian Lage

I'm With Her, Julian Lage

Thu, August 3, 2017

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

Beacon Theatre

New York, NY

$65, $55, $39.50

This event is all ages

Punch Brothers
Punch Brothers
Punch Brothers’ fourth Nonesuch album, 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. (And whenever they did take a break from their official Punch Brothers duties, the individual members engaged in a staggering array of solo and collaborative projects with fellow travelers in the worlds of bluegrass, jazz, and classical music.) 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. The first was in May 2013. We got together for a week in Charleston, South Carolina. We rented a house, and we played a gig—and the gig paid for us to rent the place. We worked on music all day at a steady pace, but it didn’t feel as pressured as it had in the past. We had another one in Telluride, another one in New York. We had about five of them. It was really good for us to have the space to work on something. We could let a song sit for a day or two and then come back to it and ask, does it still feel great—or not? We never had that luxury before.”

One such retreat took place at Oberlin College, where the band had been invited to participate as artists in residence at its famed conservatory. They conducted master classes, talked and jammed with students, and played in the auditorium. Banjo player Noam Pikelny recalls, “We had our own room in the conservatory building, surrounded by all these students who are there working their asses off on their instruments and their compositions. To have the opportunity to work on our own stuff while being surrounded by all of that was very inspiring. We were in an environment where we felt a responsibility to make something very special because part of our audience was right outside our door.”

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. ‘Familiarity,’ the trilogy, is probably the best example of that. It begins very dry, presented very plainly, no effects, as if these are thoughts coming from inside someone’s head. But, as this thing progresses, the craziness of the outside world envelopes the narrator, tries to get into his consciousness. It builds to a climax and then releases into this dream world. He’s not sure where he is—at a club, a church—or what he is hearing. The presentation of that is very dreamlike, otherworldly. The third piece is the morning after, if you will, presented very organically, as if we are just sitting around in a room playing a song. It’s like Sunday morning waking up—what happened last night? Reckoning with the reality of it all. Trying to enhance those themes sonically—that was another step forward for us in the story telling on the record. We touched on that in Who’s Feeling Young Now? as far as using the studio to enhance the music. Now we are really using the studio to help the narrative along.”

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.”

That union was also a long time coming. Burnett had previously enlisted Punch Brothers to contribute music to the Hunger Games soundtrack he produced. They performed an even greater role on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and served as the “house band” for the star-studded Another Day, Another Time concert Burnett organized at NYC’s Town Hall in September 2013. Having Burnett at the helm of these Punch Brothers sessions was a revelatory experience, even for musicians already so finely attuned to each other.

“T Bone understood what we were trying to do and helped us get it even further,” says bassist Paul Kowert. “He was like a coach and a teammate at once.”

“Even as much as we had worked with him before, I had no idea what to expect,” Thile admits. “T Bone works in mysterious ways. His genius is he manages to maintain perspective while being fully and utterly engaged and swept up in the excitement and frustration and hope and despair that goes along with trying to coax life out of these assemblages of notes.” In this setting, Thile delivered what are arguably the most expressive vocals of his career, on songs like “Julep” and “Forgotten,” bolstered by harmonies that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson would approve of. “Singing while T Bone was in the control room, I felt what it was like for an actor to work with a great director. He would find ways to get me into my own lyrics. He might come at things with some observation about the lyric that would allow me to sing it not just as me but as a whole lot of people.”

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.

Thile brought in the Passepied from Claude Debussy's Suite Bergamasque and they built it into an evocative full-band arrangement. Conversely, “Magnet” jettisons the cerebral for joyful reveling in the carnal; its spirited, syncopated groove mirrors the urgency and anticipatory excitement of a looming, late-night assignation.

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.

—Michael Hill
I'm With Her
I'm With Her
A band of extraordinary chemistry and exquisite musicianship, I’m With Her features Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. Collectively, the multi-Grammy-Award-winners have released seven solo efforts, co-founded two seminal bands (Nickel Creek and Crooked Still), and contributed to critically acclaimed albums from a host of esteemed artists. But from its very first moments, their full-length debut See You Around reveals the commitment to creating a wholly unified band sound. With each track born from close songwriting collaboration, I’m With Her builds an ineffable magic from their finespun narratives and breathtaking harmonies. The result is an album both emotionally raw and intricate, revealing layers of meaning and insight within even the most starkly adorned track.

Co-produced by Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Paul McCartney) and the band and recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in a tiny English village near Bath, See You Around delivers a warmly textured yet stripped-down sound that proves both fresh and timeless. To achieve the album’s intimate feel, I’m With Her recorded live in the tight confines of the Wood Room, all three members performing in the same room without monitors or headphones. With its piercingly lyricism, See You Around also finds I’m With Her showing the uncompromising honesty of their songwriting. That intensity is heightened by the band’s effortless harmonizing, which the New York Times has praised as “sweetly ethereal, or as tightly in tandem as country sibling teams like the Everly Brothers, or as hearty as mountain gospel.”

Layered with lush guitar tones and crystalline harmonies, See You Around’s title track opens the album with a breakup ballad of rare nuance (“It’s about coming to the end of a long relationship where you both run in the same circles, and that melancholy feeling of knowing you’re going to have to keep seeing that person again and again,” Jarosz explains). A bittersweet mood endures for songs like “Ain’t That Fine,” a wistful meditation on existential ups and downs that ultimately discovers solace in its reflection and reckoning (sample lyric: “I can’t believe the things I put my mother through/But it’s alright, I guess we all deserve our turn to be a fool”).

From track to track, I’m With Her infuses their sonic palette with so many unexpected and subtly captivating elements: the jagged guitar lines and chanteuse-like delivery of “I-89,” the percussive vocal phrasing of “Game to Lose,” the ghostly harmonies and eerie atmospherics of “Wild One.” At the same time, the band’s finely wrought lyrics gently shift from the darkly charged storytelling of “Pangaea” to the sleepy sensuality of “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” to the romantic travel tale of “Overland.” And on the Gillian Welch-penned “Hundred Miles”—a gorgeously understated track, and the album’s only song written outside the band—See You Around closes out with a world-weary but potent message of hope.

All through See You Around, I’m With Her exhibit a refined musicality that reflects their deep musical roots. After years of crossing paths in their intersecting scenes, the three musicians came together by happenstance for an off-the-cuff performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in summer 2014. The very same day, a mutual friend texted them with a last-minute request to open a show that night at the Sheridan Opera House. “We had two hours to prepare for a 30-minute set and we said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s skip margaritas and rehearse,’” O’Donovan recalls. “We worked up six or seven songs in the bathroom, and then went on to this crazy-energetic crowd at one in the morning. I’ll never forget how amazing that felt.”

Later that year, Watkins, O’Donovan, and Jarosz met up in New York to prep for a series of European shows in early 2015, carefully crafting their own arrangements of songs by artists ranging from Jim Croce to Nina Simone. “When you’re arranging a song, you’re communicating in ways that sometimes can be really inefficient,” says Watkins. “But with us it felt like we were all in a similar rhythm.” As their chemistry continued to deepen, the trio soon founded I’m With Her and transformed the project into a fully realized band. “Once you decide it’s a band, you can put it higher on your priority list and give it more attention,” says O’Donovan. “The bar gets raised when something has an air of permanence about it, and that’s definitely been the case for us.”

Although I’m With Her spent most of 2015 performing at festivals around the world, the band also holed up for their first-ever writing session that summer in L.A. “By that point it had started to solidify that we travel well together, play well together, eat well together—it felt like we’d tested our compatibility in all these different zones,” says Watkins. And after just four days of writing, it was clear that their compatibility extended to the art of songcraft. “I loved the songs, we all loved the songs,” says Jarosz of that first batch of tracks penned in L.A. “I think that really sparked the flame for us to make a full record together.”

When it came time to get working on the record, I’m With Her convened at a borrowed farmhouse in Vermont and spent over a week carving out new material, leaving only to replenish their supply of Heady Topper beer. “We were completely on lockdown and didn’t interact with another human being for eight days,” says O’Donovan. “If you can get through that and, at the end, still be so excited about what you’re doing, then that says a lot about the whole creative flow as a band.” Jarosz adds: “A lot of times you approach songwriting as a solitary act, or maybe choose to write with one other person you feel comfortable with. It’s a whole other beast to have three people writing together, juggling all these different ideas and personalities. But somehow for us, all of the songwriting was just so seamless.”

In Vermont, the band settled into their creative stride, but when the additional voice of producer Ethan Johns was added to the process in the studio, they found themselves starting another round of learning and growth. “Going into the recording, there were a lot of unknowns and a lot of questions,” says Jarosz. “It was a challenge for us to figure out how to make our vision and Ethan’s vision come together in a way that worked for everyone, and there was definitely some friction at times, but about halfway through we started to work it out.” With each member playing guitar and handling various aspects of the instrumentation— including fiddle and ukulele for Watkins, mandolin and banjo for Jarosz, piano and synth for O’Donovan—the band cut most of the album live and under exceptionally close-knit conditions. “Ethan had the studio so that we played all in the same room and facing each other,” Jarosz says. “There was really no separation between us at all.”

In looking back on the making of See You Around, I’m With Her note that a sense of unity has sustained in every step—including the moments when one member’s song idea failed to fly with the others. “If an idea doesn’t get accepted, it’s not like, ‘I’m a failure, this will never be heard,’” says Watkins. “You just move on to the next thing and put that idea aside for something else. We don’t have to be as precious with things, which really helps that forward-motion of creativity.” It’s exactly that dynamic spirit that, despite the album’s many moments of graceful restraint, imbues so much of See You Around with a powerful urgency—or, as O’Donovan, puts it: “In this band, there’s no time to get bogged down in what doesn’t happen. It’s all about what is happening.”
Julian Lage
Julian Lage
"World's Fair." Julian Lage's first solo guitar album, is so spontaneous and intimate in feel it's as if this prodigious guitarist had just arrived in your living room, picked up his vintage Martin, and simply started to play. It's very much a project created in the moment, a dozen acoustic guitar tracks recorded over the course of a mere two days, at Sear Sound in New York City. In concept, however, "World's Fair" was more than a year in the making, as Lage gradually came to embrace the rich musical and emotive possibilities within the austere format of one musician and one acoustic guitar.

"I always had a fantasy about doing a solo guitar project, " Lage explains, "especially one that highlighted various orchestrational aspects of guitar playing and guitar techniques, drawing from the structure of the three to four minute song, pieces that did not depend as much on improvisation but on moods, or musical attitudes. At first, when I was writing this music, I kind of overlooked the sonic and emotional impact of one guitar, trying to find ways to make it sound more robust or like a full ensemble. But then I started recording and I discovered what a rare opportunity this was for me to recalibrate my senses to one instrument and within that recalibration learn to savor the vast world of intimacy and nuance, both qualities so inherent to the guitar."

The album title is a clue to Lage's intentions, the phrase conjuring up a bygone hopeful vision of the future, a "tragic optimism," in Lage's words, since the future never quite turned out as the presenters at those grand expositions had predicted. The understated beauty of these tracks is laced with a certain melancholy, especially on the ruminative opening cut "40s" or when Lage gently delivers a spare rendition of Rogers and Hart's "Where Or When." "World's Fair" seems suspended in time, using the past as a reference yet seeming somehow daring and contemporary in its unadorned arrangements and unabashed melodicism. The mood is often contemplative but, at times, on tracks like "Peru" and "Red Prairie Dawn" he kicks the tempo up a notch, with his fingers scampering quickly across the strings.

While conceiving of and recording "World's Fair," Lage was inspired by the orchestral approach to the guitar of the great Andres Segovia and by the music of the early 20th Century, of "jazz before be- ?bop": "There is this era that is like the wild west, when there were jazz songs that were popular tunes and virtuosic, that had incredible lyrics, from writers like Willard Robison or Hoagy Carmichael." He found a similarly unbound spirit in the early seventies work of singer- ?songwriters like Randy Newman, who managed to incorporate a sophisticated range of ideas into the concise pop- ?song format: "It was hard to pin down what it was, but the music felt so true to itself, completely fresh and yet it you couldn't imagine a time when it didn't exist." He was drawn, in other words, to sounds that were both challenging and pleasing -- work, much like his own, that defies easy categorization.

Though still in his twenties, Lage has already enjoyed a remarkable, genre-crossing career. As the New York Times has put it, Lage is a an artist whose roots are "tangled in jazz, folk, classical and country music." A child guitar prodigy, he was the subject of the 1997 Oscar?nominated documentary short, "Jules at 8."; he made his first recording, with David Grisman, at the age of 11 and subsequently caught the notice of the world at large when he appeared alongside Gary Burton at the 2000 Grammy Awards. His first recording as a leader, 2009's "Sounding Point," garnered a Grammy nomination as Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Up to now, collaboration has been essential to Lage's process; he has toured and/or recorded with such artists as Burton, Nels Cline, Fred Hersch, and Jim Hall, who was a major influence on the young Lage. His most recent project is "Room," a live- ?in- ?the- ?studio exchange with experimental guitarist Cline. Earlier this year, he released "Avalon," a duo recording with fellow guitarist Chris "Critter" Eldridge (of Punch Brothers) that surveyed the American Songbook with an easygoing virtuosity. After seeing that pair in concert performing songs from "Avalon," New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson noted that Lage's playing "is cerebral, and sometimes playful, but because his vocabulary is so expansive, it is also riveting...he is in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them."

Though Lage alone performs on "Worlds Fair," the project is also, in a sense, a collaboration: he enlisted two long- ?time musician colleagues, the jazz guitarist Matt Munisteri and the multi- ?instrumentalist Armand Hirsch, as, respectively, his co- ? producer and engineer- ?mixer. Munisteri offered extensive knowledge of the early 2oth Century music that was captivating Lage, and served a discerning ear throughout. Hirsch brought technical innovation and an adventurous soul to the recording itself.

"We had a year to figure out the sonic fingerprint of the album." says Lage. "The whole aesthetic is derived from early Segovia. There is an upfront quality to the sound that is almost surreal, like you're kneeling down in front of a guitar and listening to it. Most of the time you hear an acoustic guitar it's been saturated and diffused into the walls. With one recorded source, we wanted the image to be as wide as possible without being goofy. That immediacy and all encompassing quality was something they got so well with those early radio-style recordings.

Being in front of Hirsch's mic set- ?up with just himself and his guitar was, says Lage, "like a psychological marathon. If I were doing something like "Avalon" with Critter or doing a trio session, I would be bouncing off of people in a certain way, You play, you let your mind wander, you listen to the other person, come back to yourself. But this was so focused on the role of the guitar that the quality that took precedence was a sense of losing yourself in the music. I had to forget where I was, to not worry if I was playing good or bad, fast or slow. None of it mattered. What seemed to transfer to tape was the degree to which I could lose myself -- and sound like I was grateful for the opportunity. When I tried to nail it and get it right, I would inevitably be stuck in a paradigm I couldn't get out of. We had two days to make this record so the takes we used are the ones in which I felt the most reckless, and kind of let the sound of guitar swallow me up. " "World's Fair" sets up a new sort of relationship between Lage and his audience, as about as one- ?on- ?one as a musician can get without physically being there. Concludes Lage, "Here are 12 songs that represent this opening into my world, a musical and personal aesthetic I haven't yet had the opportunity to express in full on record. This music, these explorations, this overarching narrative -- taken together, they represent one of my long times dreams, to create music for one guitar, played by one person, for you."

- Michael Hill
Venue Information:
Beacon Theatre
2124 Broadway
New York, NY, 10023
http://www.beacontheatre.com/faq/index.html