Beyond bluegrass: Punch Brothers defy genres through collaboration

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The Punch Brothers packs a wallop of chamber music, rock ‘n’ roll, and old and newgrass into its rollicking live show. Photo credit: Danny Clinch. The Punch Brothers packs a wallop of chamber music, rock ‘n’ roll, and old and newgrass into its rollicking live show. Photo credit: Danny Clinch.

The Punch Brothers look the part of a bluegrass band—clad in old-timey suits and armed with traditional instruments. But catching one of the band’s dynamic live shows is to witness an acoustic adventure that defies the typical boundaries of the genre. 

The band keeps audiences guessing with a sound that can move fluidly from Bach to rock, all through the scope of a five-piece string band. Through years on the road testing the limitations of their instruments the band members have created an expansive brand of indie chamber grass. They’ve become beloved for inventive takes on familiar covers with standouts including the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirt Ground” and The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” The group’s latest full-length album, last year’s Who’s Feeling Feeling Young Now?, features a gripping take on Radiohead’s “Kid A” with warm tones of wood and steel interpreting the tune’s original glitchy atmospherics.

Beyond the exciting covers, the Punch Brothers have built a large repertoire that includes everything from high-minded newgrass instrumentals to pastoral classical journeys to gritty folk-rock songs.

“We’re always trying to strike a balance,” said banjo player Noam Pikelny by phone. “We have a reputation for working up covers that surprise people. We love playing our versions of other people’s material and certain songs have become part of the band’s identity. But original music is still the driving force behind this band.”

The first seeds of the Punch Brothers were sewn in 2006. After a lengthy run with the bluegrass-pop outfit Nickel Creek, mandolin innovator Chris Thile was looking for a new project. He approached a few rising stars in the acoustic music world—guitarist and founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters Chris Eldridge, Pikelny (Leftover Salmon, John Cowan), and violinist Gabe Witcher—to help with a solo album, How to Build a Woman from the Ground.

Next,Thile had something more ambitious in mind—a four-movement classical suite called “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which chronicled through nimble-fingered, tension-and-release string work the emotional turmoil of his divorce. The work was the focus of the band’s 2008 album Punch.

“As soon we started playing that, there was a sense among us that we had something special to offer,” Pikelny says. “There was music to be created that none of us could’ve really imagined yet.”

Soon after, the group’s line-up was solidified with the addition of bassist Paul Kowert. All of the band members moved to New York City and, with everyone in close proximity, extended group collaboration began in earnest.

With a diligent road ethic, the band has seen its fan base swell and become a mainstay at a range of festivals from Telluride Bluegrass to Bonnaroo to Newport Folk. The ability to attract diverse audiences comes from the evolution of a sound that’s increasingly hard to pigeonhole. With subsequent albums, 2010’s Antifogmatic and Who’s Feeling Feeling Young Now?, the band has made it a point to tone down instrumental exploration in favor of tighter song-driven arrangements. On the latter effort, producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones) helped craft concise tunes that utilize the members’ otherworldly chops for nuance and effect, as opposed to front-and-center display. The album’s opening “Movement and Location” could be categorized as pulsing dance rock without a beat, while “New York City”—a co-write between Thile and Josh Ritter—showcases the mandolin player’s tender vocal range through a hard-charging breakup song.

“When this really started to turn into a collaborative project, we tried to distance ourselves from the expectations that this was going to be musician’s music—a band all about instrumental firepower and crazy soloing,” Pikelny explains. “As we become comfortable with our identity and continue to hone our sound, we work hard to not lean on the instrumental aspect of the band.

“Because of our history, we’ve run the risk of playing things that appeal to us because they’re technically challenging. We’ve realized that the best thing that each one of us could be doing is just serving the song—even if that means laying low and playing a supportive role.”

Punch Brothers Jefferson Theater, February 11

 

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