(HUDSON, N.Y.) – Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, from the Punch Brothers, and Nickel Creek guitarist Michael Daves perform a concert of bluegrass standards played with punk-rock abandon at Club Helsinki Hudson on Wednesday, January 11, 2012, at 8 p.m. Last year, the vocal-instrumental duo released Sleep with One Eye Open, an impassioned collaboration and conversation in the tradition of old-fashioned brother duos in which the subject is bluegrass, specifically how this upstart duo can acknowledge history and tradition while exuberantly defying convention. The album was recorded in four feverish days of sessions at Jack White’s Third Man studio in Nashville, with the White Stripes/Racounteurs/Dead Weather frontman producing two tracks
Daves and Thile knew they wanted to cut a record together and spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over exactly how to approach it. Daves admits, “We felt we needed to have a concept; we shouldn’t just try and go to record an album until we really knew what we wanted to say with it. Finally, Nonesuch head Bob Hurwitz told us, ‘You need to just do what you do.’ We decided to go down to Nashville and get good performances of the songs with the understanding that spontaneity is a big part of what we do.” Thile agrees: “It seemed like it kept being the best if we just showed up and went at it.”
The pair wanted White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather guitarist Jack White to produce the album, having been impressed by the work he’d done with Loretta Lynn and, more recently, with Wanda Jackson (on Third Man/Nonesuch’s The Party Ain’t Over). White only had time to cut two sides with Daves and Thile – to be released as a single on Third Man Records – but he gave them free rein of his studio and White’s engineer Vance Powell stuck around for all of the sessions. White would occasionally pay them encouraging visits. Says Thile, “Jack was really, really generous and let us cut the whole record at his place on his beautiful two-inch eight-track machines. It was just so much fun, man, like records ought to be – all ribbon mics and not that many of ‘em, and singing into just one RCA 77. It’s just like we do live, huddled around a microphone doing our best.”
Over the course of four days, the pair recorded 23 tracks, choosing 16 for the album. The material was drawn from the bluegrass canon: traditional tunes plus classic numbers from Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs. Songs like “Loneliness and Desperation” and the title track emphasize rollicking, rapid-fire arrangements that serve to mask the most sorrowful of feelings, an approach that Thile has extrapolated on in his own wider-ranging compositions with Punch Brothers. Daves’ and Thile’s voices blend as seamlessly – and, on tracks like “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” as plaintively – as their instruments. As Thile says, “Mandolin and guitar and two male voices – it’s such a good sound. What was important for us was to get that brother duet thing but with this Lower East Side punk energy. One of the most enjoyable things about this experience was to underline the slightly delinquent side of bluegrass.”
“Bluegrass gets all of its emotion, all of its righteousness from humanity and the mistakes that humans make,” Thile concludes. “It needs that humanity and celebrates it. We were mindful of that. All the work for this record had already been done at the jam sessions and at the shows we put on at the Rockwood Music Hall, we just had to take a snapshot of it. I think we found a way to maintain our wide-eyed wonder about this stuff and deliver it with the sincerity of people who need to play this music to feel good.”
Club Helsinki Hudson
405 Columbia St.