The Punch Brothers with singer/songwriter Aoife O'Donovan came to Oberlin for three days of workshops and music-making October 5-7.
The first event was the listening party in Stull Recital Hall. Here's a full list of what we listened to, and a link to the Spotify playlist I made afterwards:
"That Song About the Midway" by Bonnie Raitt. This was a tribute to Joni Mitchell, who originally sang the song. This track has a reserved, easy quality that keeps you intrigued.
"Cryin' Time" by Buck Owens. A classic bluegrass tune that is considered "the perfect track" by the Brothers' banjo player, Noam Pikelny. The harmonies were so tight, the pulse was felt in exactly the same place with each musician, and it was all in one take!
"Cryin' Time" by Ray Charles. Adapted from Buck Owens, Charles changed the orchestration and texture to your classic 50s and 60s wine-glass romance.
"Death with Dignity" by Sufjan Stevens. The guitarist, Chris Eldridge, said this song was one of the most beautiful openings to a concert he had ever heard.
"Alright" by Kendrick Lamar. Mandolinist and singer Chris Thile went crazy over this track. The rhythms are so precise, the lyrics are powerful, and it has a fascinating "circular quality" that makes you constantly change your sense of the pulse.
"Arthur McBride" by Paul Brady. With meaningful lyrics and Brady's earnest vocals, this song has a solemn, contemplative feel.
The listening party was not only so cool because the artists placed equal value on so many different kinds of music, but we could see these amazing people in a relaxed setting, simply enjoying and discussing some of their favorite music.
The next event I attended was a fiddling masterclass. The room filled with violins, some violas, and three cellos (they can fiddle too!). We arranged ourselves in a circle, and the Brothers' fiddler Gabe Witcher proceeded to lead us through a basic exercise for feeling pulse.
While classical music usually has a square and vertical feel, country music often feels the pulse on offbeats, or weaker beats. For most of us, shifting our deeply internalized sense of pulse was...challenging, to say the least. But we started to get the hang of it.
He then taught us a short tune by ear (Sally Goodin, of which there are a million versions, but here is one by Mark O'Connor). As we played it together, we became a makeshift ensemble and individually alternated between playing the tune and becoming rhythmic background.
Soon it sounded like a big soup of string instrument magic, and we weren't perfectly together every stop of the way, but we got closer to that groove for which folk music is known and loved.
Next, a beloved Oberlin tradition: the jam session. On 6 October at 10 pm, the Con lounge was packed with musicians and spectators in about equal proportion. We were given one tune to learn, Brown County Breakdown, and we played a few others.
While we jammed, I stood a mere four or five feet away from Chris Thile as he shouted and signaled chord progressions. Relaxing? No! Insanely fun? Yes!
As solos were passed off, from tuba to viola to sax to cello to flute, it was hilarious, stressful, illuminating, weird, and by far the most spontaneous and communal music-making I've ever done. It was a complete blast.
If you want a good sense of Oberlin, go to that jam session when it next comes. It's a huge mess and it's so beautiful. It's so wild, it's like these tunes are catalysts in a test tube of people. If that makes any sense.
The last event I attended was a bluegrass workshop with Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge. Just a quick introduction to bluegrass history, it covered the evolution from founding father Bill Monroe to innovators like Béla Fleck. Here's a playlist based on what they discussed. Guaranteed effect: you'll want to put a cowboy hat on and go milk a cow.
The Brothers should be comin' round next semester, so keep your eyes open and your fiddle tuned!