Words by: JC McIlwaine
Punch Brothers :: 02.13.08 :: Higher Ground :: Burlington, VT
The Punch Brothers stopped into Higher Ground on a cold winter's night to kick-start their current tour. At first it seemed odd to find seats set up on the floor at what was purported to be a bluegrass concert, where crowds usually shake off their worries and kick up their heels in devil-may-care dancing. However, as anyone who's followed Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile (Nickel Creek) could tell you, his style meanders far and wide from traditional bluegrass.
The seats would come in handy as Thile and his bandmates (banjo player Noam Pikelny, fiddler Gabe Witcher, bassist Greg Garrison and guitarist Chris Eldridge) worked their way through a half-hour-plus, four-movement suite that comprised much of the first set. The songs, collectively (and cleverly) titled "The Blind Leaving the Blind," were composed in the wake of a heart-rending break-up, and reflect the moods, motives and motions of someone who's just had their reality shattered and is left trying to pick up the pieces. Thile sings in the second movement: "Well, she sang me the song that I wrote for her/ Then she said 'I like the tune but not the words/ It's over'." He sings "It's over" so often in this movement, repeatedly adding "I'm over it," that you get the sense that while the relationship has ended, the singer is nowhere near over it.
"The Blind Leaving the Blind" is the piece de resistance off the Punch Brothers' new album, aptly titled Punch (arriving February 26 on Nonesuch Records). In order to maintain its continuity in the live setting, Thile suggested before starting the piece that the audience not clap during the gaps between movements but rather hold off with their applause until the suite's finale. He jokingly added that he and the others would understand if no one felt like clapping at the end either.
The grandness of its scope aside, "The Blind Leaving the Blind" serves as a great example of the Punch Brothers' style. Conventional bluegrass wends its way off into jazz-like compositions, as each musician has a crack at quoting the established musical phrase, their instruments lending different dialects and cadence to the notes. The songs are replete with shifting time signatures, extended pauses and lyrics that break from the simplicity of the typical verse-chorus-verse structure.
The band's experimentation is built upon a strong foundation, as the musicians have all been to school with the masters. Eldridge was a founding member of The Infamous Stringdusters, who are highly lauded in bluegrass circles. Both Garrison and Pikelny played with Leftover Salmon for years. Garrison has also played with such greats as Del McCoury, Vassar Clements and Sam Bush. Witcher's resume is quite impressive in its variety. He has recorded with a very diverse group of musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Randy Newman and Beck.
Over the course of the night's two sets the Punch Brothers covered their new album in its entirety and drew on numbers from both Nickel Creek's and Chris Thile's solo catalogs. In a radical departure from the established bluegrass canon, Punch Brothers covered both The Strokes' "Heart in a Cage" and The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (both covers appear in studio form on Chris Thile's How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, which was recorded with this same band). Perversely, both songs were given a fairly conventional bluegrass treatment, perhaps the most straightforward of the night.
One constant in the Punch Brothers' performance was the sense of humor that accompanied their music. As Thile retuned his mandolin between songs, Pikelny would take the opportunity to crack wise about the titles of the songs they were about to play. He joked in his dry, tongue-in-cheek manner about the amount of time and effort it took the band to come up with a song title as eloquent as "Sometimes," and noted the subtle brilliance of the title "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground."
Punch Brothers merchandise became one of the funnier themes the band returned to time and again. At one point as Thile slowly worked up to telling a story, Garrison and Witcher quietly struck up a song behind him. "Oh no," he lamented, "it's the merch song!" He went on to praise the CDs, t-shirts and other band-related items to be found on the merch table, speaking most proudly of "the bad-assest stickers on the planet." Then Pikelny piped up and suggested they auction off Garrison and Witcher, starting the bidding at $75.
Wherever the Punch Brothers wind up on their whirlwind tour, in rooms big and small, crowds will wonder at their off-kilter take on their musical genre, as they witness a band well-versed in tradition blaze new trails over the hills and through the dales of bluegrass. And the yuks will surely follow. Near the end of the evening, Thile implored the crowd to hang out after the show, promising that the band would come out to "shake and howdy." He giggled, adding, "We'll be right by the merch table."
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