Punch Brothers will aim to deliver a knockout concert in Park City
Park City Institute presents Punch Brothers
7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30
Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
The Punch Brothers’ most recent album “All Ashore” won a Grammy for Best Folk Album in February.
The acclaim was unexpected for the group, because everyone in the band — banjoist Noam Pikelny, fiddle player Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and mandolinist Chris Thile — didn’t think they had a chance of winning due to Joan Baez’s “Whistle Down the Wind” was in the same category.
“The whole band didn’t even show up for the ceremony, because we all felt it was such a long shot,” Pikelny said. “So we found ourselves in the awkward position of accepting the award without Chris Thile or Paul Kowert there. But we’ll take it. Any little thing like that makes us feel good.”
Pikelny did promise that Thile and Kowert will be with the rest of his bandmates when Punch Brothers perform Tuesday at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. The banjoist also promised the band would play songs from “All Ashore” as well as other signature tunes from its decade-long career.
“We are always most fond of the most recent record we do, and since ‘All Ashore’ is still fairly new to us, the cornerstone of the set will be from that album,” he said. “But we always pull from the other records and throw in some covers we haven’t recorded.”
“All Ashore” is the Punch Brothers’ fifth studio album, but the first self-produced by the band, according to Pikelny.
“On our previous albums, we have worked with incredible producers — T-Bone Burnett, Jacquire King and Jon Brion and Steven Epstein — all titans in the studio who had different approaches,” he said. “We learned an incredible amount working with these guys, because they all were very collaborative and generous with their philosophies.”
So when it came time to head to the studio, Pikelny and his bandmates felt they were ready to self produce.
“Not only did we learned so much from those guys, every one of us had produced other records for other artists outside the band,” he said. “So we felt if we could do that, then us five with an incredible engineer Jason Wormer could do it in tandem on our own.”
There is a three-year break between “All Ashore” and the band’s previous release, “The Wireless,” a five-song EP.
The reason it took the Punch Brothers that long to write and record a new album is scheduling, Pikelny said.
Only three members — Pikelny, Thile and Eldridge — live in Nashville. Witcher lives in Los Angeles, and Kowert lives in New York.
Witcher and Thile are especially busy, said Pikelny.
“Gabe is producing other projects, and has produced some of my solo albums,” he said. “And Chris hosts his radio show.”
The show Pikelny referred to is “Live from Here,” formerly “A Prairie Home Companion” that was hosted by Garrison Keillor.
“Everyone is quite busy and working on other projects,” Pikelny said. “So there was something about reconvening as the Punch Brothers after a couple of years of us honing our chops while away from each other. I feel the band is more vibrant because of that.”
Pikelny’s journey to the Punch Brothers started in Chicago when his older brother began playing mandolin in elementary school.
“My path to the banjo was fairly pedestrian in the sense that I just needed an instrument to learn,” he said with a laugh. “My brother had an epiphany to play mandolin while watching a bluegrass band play at his elementary school. So, for a couple of years, he would go to his weekly lessons while I sat in the park and threw a baseball back and forth with my mom.”
Pikelny eventually got tired of playing catch, and found himself at an existential crossroads.
“I felt like time was flying away from me, because at 8 years old, I had very little to show for myself,” he said laughing.
His parents suggested he learn the banjo, thinking he and his brother could play music together.
“I listened to some banjo on a Sam Bush cassette we had and thought, ‘Sure, why not?,’” Pikelny said. “So we rented a banjo from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I just kept with it and I eventually fell in love with the sound.”
Pikelny stuck with the instrument, and landed his first professional gig with jamband legends Leftover Salmon from 2002 to 2004. And the experience was different than the experience of others who play empty coffee houses after they decide to quit their day jobs to pursue music, he said.
“Leftover Salmon had this world, this entire community, that would travel across the country to see them at festivals,” Pikelny said. “So it was surreal to be on stage and be accepted by their audience. These guys are forces of nature as entertainers. So while what I’m playing these days isn’t exactly what Leftover was playing, I couldn’t help but absorb some of their sense of showmanship. At least I hope the fearlessness of how those guys played rubbed off on me at little bit.”
After leaving Leftover Salmon, Pikelny joined the John Cowan Band.
“John is the bassist and vocalist of Newgrass Revival, and he is a hero of mine,” Pikelny said. “So to play with him and the incredible musicians he had was a real treat.”
In 2010, Pikelny won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which was an opportunity for him to meet and perform with another hero.
“Steve is a gem, and it was inspiring to see how he approaches all of his artistic pursuits,” Pikelny said. “He goes at them with incredible vigor and curiosity, and he always finds ways to stay productive and relevant as he jumps in with this incredible dedication.”
Being a member of the Punch Brothers only magnifies the lessons Pikelny learned from Leftover Salmon, Cowan and Martin, he said.
“Being a member of a band like the Punch Brothers is a pretty transformative, philosophical and conceptual experience,” he said. “Everything about the group required all of us band members to be flexible and open-minded about how we approached our instruments.
“From a technical perspective, the early music we played was such a challenge and forced me to expand my toolbox as an instrumentalist as far as how to play this music and preserve the innate sound of the banjo. That kind of expansion didn’t just apply to the music we were playing. When I go back to play traditional bluegrass, I have these new avenues in how I can approach playing the banjo that I’ve never done before.”
The reason why the Punch Brothers continue to make music today is essentially the same reason the band started making music in the first place, he said.
“It goes back to when we would crash on each other’s floors,” Pikelny said. “There is a bond, a camaraderie, in the pursuit of creating original and new music. And it continues to be something I’m really grateful for.”
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