String quintet merges bluegrass, pop and goofiness
By Suzanne McRae
TFW Contributing Writer
The Punch Brothers defy all artistic categories except for “good music.”
Building on a matrix of acoustic bluegrass and pop, they merge folk lyricism, rock, jazz and classical. They collaborate with diverse distinguished artists such as Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer. Their TV/radio appearances include Leno, Letterman and Prairie Home Companion. An authentic string quintet, their virtuoso talent, prodigious energy, zest for innovation and a generous dollop of goofiness have led to national and international prominence and rave reviews, and of course, legions of devoted fans.
The founder and featured performer is Chris Thile, a child prodigy of the mandolin. At age 5 he began lessons, and at 8, he and his father, Scott, joined with the Watson siblings, Sara and Sean, as the highly successful, Grammy-winning pop group Nickel Creek, performing from 1989 to 2006.
As a teenager, Thile recorded two solo albums of his own, bluegrass compositions with the backup of legendary players such as Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush: “Leading Off” (1994) and “Stealing Second” (1997).
Thile then wrote, arranged, sang and performed all the instrumentals for “Deceiver” (2004), his first album with vocals. “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” (2000), a purely instrumental work, extended the range of his lyrical experimentation and collaboration with Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Bryan Sutton.
The core members of the band that would become the Punch Brothers made “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground” (2006). This album pushed beyond bluegrass boundaries into progressive and avant-garde covers of Gillian Welch, the White Stripes, Jimmy Rodgers, The Strokes and several traditional pieces — all transformed by the collaboration of the entire band.
Current band members are Gabe Witcher, fiddle (acclaimed for playing scores for such films as “Toy Story” and “Brokeback Mountain” and working with artists such as Lyle Lovett); Noam Pikelny, banjo (formerly of Leftover Salmon and winner of the Steve Martin Banjo award); Chris Eldridge, guitar (Infamous Stringdusters); and Paul Kowert, bass (student of Edgar Meyer at the Curtis Institute).
The hybrid vigor of the Punch Brothers’ music fulfills the Renaissance expectation that ideal behavior should display sprezzatura (calculated spontaneity). The easy grace of courtier, soldier, lover or artist disguises the discipline, labor and creativity that lurk behind the seemingly natural simplicity. The PB’s musical forms navigate like the tendrils of an adventurous climbing vine, delicate, strong and inexorable. Yet the Brothers hone their inherent virtuosity with rigorous, often classical, training and fiendishly workaholic revision and rehearsal.
Their repertoire is a rich brew of instrumental experiment and diverse ingredients. They defy generic purity; Bach, Mozart and Bartok live happily with Radiohead, Sam Bush and the Beatles. Chris is fond of saying, “An A chord is an A chord.”
The PB’s complex mix of unexpected musical techniques is reflected in the love of chromatic progressions, frequent shifts in key and tonality, abrupt alterations of tempo and rhythm and dramatic clashes of emotional tones.
Their impressive repertoire of musical genres ranges from subtle Latin rhythms to railroad-and-whiskey-soaked blues, foot-stomping bluegrass and mocking satire of erotic and marital strife.
Their lyrical songs form narrative vignettes with strong infusions of bittersweet love, painful maturation and sometimes religious idealism. They also celebrate the consolations of friendship and the exaltation of composing and performing.
The past two years have produced the PB’s most complex and brilliant compositions: “Punch” (2008) and “Antifogmatic” (2010). The innovative music and lyrics of “Punch” startle and electrify most audiences while some critics and bluegrass purists are disturbed by perceived transgression of traditional forms. The dissonant harmonies and startling ruptures in rhythm and emotional expression can stretch experimentation to an edge. The ambitious four-part suite structure might strike some as pretentious. But it works and might well be deemed a secular cantata or oratorio. Its biographical matrix — the painful process of Chris’s divorce and emotional and artistic recovery — is shockingly intimate yet poignant and artistically rendered.
“Antifogmatic” returns to the conventional format of diverse, separate songs, but each piece is a gem of sophisticated craft and subtle polish, displaying the sure-footed maturation of the band.
Thile’s most recent composition is his classical concerto for the entire orchestra “Ad Astra per alar Porci” (“To the stars on the wings of pigs”) in which he recaptures the original standard for cadenzas to be spontaneous creations. He has performed this piece with enthusiastic reviews for the six American orchestras that commissioned it.
A recent film documents the PBs on rigorous American and Canadian tours — pubs, college campuses, Carnegie Hall and large music festivals such as Telluride — as well as the more intimate venue at the Living Room, the band’s home base in Lower East Side Manhattan. Here they dry run and refine new materials by interacting with their many local fans.
The Punch Brothers will play at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21 at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville — the second anniversary of their first Fayetteville performance — with a $20 ticket price.