Jay Meehan: Punch Brothers
Ryan Summerlin June 24, 2014
It’s well known that the various instrumentalists and vocalists in the band Punch Brothers stretch what was once referred to as the bluegrass music form to the point where most all the laws of elasticity break down.
You’ll have that! For many years now, going back to the early ’70s, hybrid-bluegrass has been very much in vogue. No other instrumental grouping appears anywhere near as genre-friendly as that of the mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and upright bass.
Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman kind of got things rolling with an eponymous LP that also featured Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and John Kahn. Grisman, Rowan and Kahn also became part of Muleskinner alongside Clarence White and Bill Keith.
Later came Sam Bush’s New Grass Revival which evolved from the Bluegrass Alliance and, in its most-famous incarnation, featured Bela Fleck, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn.
Then the cello was introduced when Yo-Yo Ma joined Marc O’Conner and Edgar Meyer for a couple of Appalachian albums which, in many ways, begat the impeccable Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo, Edgar, Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile, and Aoife O’Donovan, a charmer who you may recall from a Deer Valley show a couple of years back as lead vocalist with the group Crooked Still.
So by now, traditional, classic, progressive, hardcore, indie, and alternative forms of country, rock, blues, folk, pop, Latin, jazz, soul, reggae, punk, and avant garde, have been brought into the bluegrass fold with nary a shrug. Well, if you think all the acoustic instrumental landscape has already been homesteaded, wait ’till you get a load of Punch Brothers. These cats always have something up their sleeve.
We’ve known for many years, going back to his very early teens with the group Nickel Creek, that Punch Brothers founder Chris Thile is a prodigy of the highest order. We no longer even consider the mandolin with the same vocabulary we used prior to his arrival on the scene. Mentored by such giants as the aforementioned Grisman and Bush, among others, his virtuosity has grown to the point where he’s downright scary. As are the rest of Punch Brothers.
Don’t take my word for it. Check them out yourself. They’re coming to town on Sunday, July 6, at Deer Valley fresh off their triumph last week at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and an ensuing well-received gig down the street at the Sheridan Opera House to officially close the Festival on Sunday night.
Did I mention that Thile also opened the Festival a few days earlier with a morning solo set before joining his Nickel Creek bandmates, Sara and Sean Watkins, for a 90-minute set later that evening.
Although, at the time I’m typing this I have yet to see a full song list from their Festival set, a few interesting tidbits have leaked out in the press. The first is that the brilliant Punch Brother banjo player, Noam Pikelny, totally had his way with Bill Monroe’s classic instrumental "Wheel House."
Pikelny’s artistry is no secret. The first ever winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which came with $50,000 and a banjo duel with Martin on the Letterman show, he has integrated the 5-string into everything Thile has thrown at him while adding more than a few wrinkles of his own to the band’s highly sophisticated and eclectic sound.
The same, of course, can be said of the rest of the group. Gabe Witcher is a monster on fiddle, Chris Eldridge flatpicks gorgeous guitar, and bassist Paul Kowert keeps the bottom full, all while engaging with one of the more dazzling and demanding repertoires in the biz.
Probably the most interesting piece to show up on their Telluride set list had to be the Thile-driven "Fourth Movement of Suite bergamasque," a piano suite, performed on mandolin, of course, and composed by that great old bluegrass songwriter, Claude Debussy, in the late 1800s.
Their Main Stage Festival encore last week turned out to be the Irish Ballad "The Auld Triangle," sung a capella in the same manner they recorded it for T Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis."
With all of Chris Thile’s recent and upcoming side projects, including his reunion tour with Nickel Creek which starts next month, Punch Brothers hasn’t really been on the road all that much.
This could work in our favor in that they could well choose to perform a similar set list to what they did in Telluride when they take the stage at the Deer Valley Snow Park Amphitheater on Sunday of 4th of July weekend. Got my game face on!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.