The Punch Brothers visit Pittsburgh Monday, March 17 to play Mr. Smalls. I first saw these guys perform on Austin City Limits; they split the hour-long slot with The Civil Wars. I don't usually listen to bluegrass, but I was hooked from the first plucks of the mandolin. There was something refreshing about seeing the band's five members huddled closely together, not a drum kit or amp in sight. Here's the opening song from that set, "Movement and Location," which is also the opening track off of Who's Feeling Young Now?, their most recent album, from 2012.
The first thing that stands out about the group is their musical proficiency. Bandleader Chris Thile, formerly of the accomplished bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, contributes vocals and plays the mandolin. The Onion's AV Club calls Thile "inarguably one of the most accomplished mandolin players in the world," and in 2012 his talent earned him a MacArthur "Genius Grant."
In addition to mandolin the quintet includes a banjo, guitar, upright bass, and violin/fiddle. For a better description than I could ever write of the Punch Brothers' musical prowess, here is former Daily Show corespondent and longtime banjo player Ed Helms's take on the band, from a piece that appeared in Paste in 2010, in which he accuses them of being aliens bent on world domination:
Mere human beings could never achieve the Punch Brothers’ musicianship and technical proficiency. Frontman Chris Thile’s mandolin playing defies the laws of physics. It is my belief that he has an additional six fingers on his left hand which are invisible. He also embodies the statistically impossible combination of mandolin virtuosity, charm and frosted tips. Banjo player Noam Pikelny demonstrates a level of skill that directly contradicts the societal value of his instrument: The aliens made a cultural miscalculation, since no human would ever want to be that good at banjo. It also doesn’t take long to realize guitarist Chris Eldridge was cultivated in a petri dish by fusing the DNA of Tony Rice and Clarence White (and, sadly, the fashion sense of Björk). Gabe Witcher plays his fiddle so fast that he needs a synthetic beard to insulate his tender alien skin from the heat. And Paul Kowert thumps what looks like a bass but is actually a low frequency transmitter sending coded signals to the mothership. That explains his totally unique bass lines and perfect timing.
The band, and Thile in particular, were the focus of a 2011 documentary called How to Grow a Band, (which is available for streaming on Netflix). In it there's a scene where Thile is on the phone kvetching about how the band is being represented in promotional material. "If they feel the need to put 'bluegrass,'" he says, "they need to put 'progressive' or 'contemporary' bluegrass." Their first album, Punch, from 2008, was centered around a 40 minute suite of music for string quintet. While, thankfully, they no longer perform it from start-to-finish at concerts, theirs is still a unique fusion of chamber music and bluegrass, a virtuosic one at that.
We have a pair of tickets to giveaway for the performance, which is being presented by the good folks at WYEP. To enter, send us an email at pghmusicreport [at] gmail.com, and put "punch brothers" in the subject line. Tickets are available via Ticketweb. The music starts at 8. Aoife O'Donovan opens. She previously performed with The Infamous Stringdusters, who once counted current Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge as a member.
-- B. Conway