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Beyond Bluegrass

March 8, 2010

It’s hard to think of Punch Brothers, who performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater March 4, as a bluegrass act. The instruments are there—banjo, guitar, string bass, violin and, of course, mandolin—and even the performer’s outfits come straight from Barn Dance Saturday Night. But anyone familiar with the band, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile or Thile’s previous group, Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek, already knows there is something more afoot.

Photo credit: punchbrothers.com

The New York Times recently referred to the roots-music quintet as “chamber bluegrass,” a deferential term to honor Punch Brothers’ abilities and aspirations, but even that may be too limiting. For those who must pigeonhole, consider what the band does as chamber-blue-fusion—which sounds more like an automotive color than a musical genre, I know—or just sit back and enjoy the show.

There is a distinct musical and verbal wit among Thile and his bandmates—guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist and Madison native Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam “Pickles” Pikelny and fiddle player Gabe Witcher—which provide an accessible context to their often unique approach. Whether performing Jack White’s “Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground” or the second half of the first movement of Thile’s 40-minute, four-movement suite “The Blind Leaving the Blind” (“The most requested half of the first movement,” according to Pikelny), Punch Brothers stirs up a minor musical tempest cast in shades of bluegrass that give their sound both fragility and durability. Think of an antique watchworks that can predict the future and you will have some idea what Punch Brothers’ is about.

Thile stands at the forefront of  Punch Brothers – a name taken from the Mark Twain short story “Punch Brothers, Punch!” –  a not-quite-whirling dervish off of whom the other musicians play. He sings—sometimes harmoniously with his fellow players, other times more shrilly in counterpoint to the high registers of his mandolin—and part of the fun is never quite knowing what’s coming. The band’s musical pedigree is without peer, but it’s their creativity and wit that give them the edge.

In addition to older numbers, the band played numerous cuts from its upcoming album Antifogmatic, including “This is the Song (Good Luck),” “Don’t Need No,” and “Next to the Trash,” an appropriately odd ditty about life under the sink “among the cleaning supplies.”

The album, due out in May, “is so new you can buy it yet and we can’t even buy it yet,” Thile said. After the band’s WUT performance there should be many fans awaiting its release, even those not related to Paul Kowert.

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