Punch Brothers dance around the B-word
The Punch Brothers never exactly denied being a bluegrass band. But violinist Gabe Witcher says it’s becoming easier as time goes on for the group to use the “B word” — or, for that matter, any other terms the group wants to use when people want to know how to describe the music.
“I don’t think we, as a band, necessarily ever weren’t embracing our roots,” Witcher says. “I think it was the people who were trying to tell us what bluegrass was that didn’t embrace us. As far as we were concerned, we were kind of always making something that is very related to bluegrass and the roots of bluegrass. I feel like we’ve come to the point where, whatever you want to call it, we’re fine with it. It’s not going to change what the music actually is. However you can relate to it, that’s fine with us.”
The Punch Brothers’ music has been proving to be quite relatable for six years now, and they have carved out a reputation for being one of the most talented and adventurous bands.
The group formed in 2005 when former Nickel Creek mandolin player Chris Thile, longtime friend Witcher, and banjo player Noam Pikelny came together for a jam session that convinced them to move forward in forming a new bluegrass-rooted band. Pikelny suggested a fourth member, guitarist Chris Eldgridge, and the original lineup was completed with bassist Greg Garrison.
The still-unnamed group hit the studio and in 2006 released the album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground. The album demonstrated the band’s firm grasp on bluegrass, but it also showed that they wouldn’t be slaves to the form, as the album included acoustic interpretations of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and the Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage.”
After adopting the name Punch Brothers and having Paul Kowert take over for Garrison, the group returned in 2008 with another bold work, Punch, the centerpiece of which was Thile’s suite in four movements, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” based on his divorce.
For the current Punch Brothers’ album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the group wanted to better capture its live sound and the spark the band members feel when a song first comes together.
“When you’re writing and you’re rehearsing, the more you play something, the less new it is,” Witcher explains. “What you’re really trying to go for is, like, you’re trying to capture the first time everything really clicks into place. That’s where the excitement really is.”
The group’s creativity was also going strong, and they ended up recording 21 songs. “You do that in hopes of being able to select the 12 that best fit together on a record and hold together as a cohesive body of work,” Witcher says. “But we also had these other songs laying around that we really, really loved … We thought, ‘Why not put out an EP of it and see what happens?’”
The result is a newly released EP, Ahoy!, which includes another five songs from the Young sessions. Taken together, the two records feature some of the Punch Brothers’ boldest and most accomplished music, as the band applies its bluegrass instrumentation and influence to songs that often have strong pop sensibilities.
As a live act, Witcher thinks the group has developed considerably. One key change has been technological, as the group this year solved the challenge of how to increase its volume so it could play larger venues without losing the acoustic sound of its instruments.
“(We) finally arrived at a dual solution where we had pickups and microphones on all of the instruments,” Witcher says. “They blend in a way that you can’t really tell they’re pickups at all, which was our goal. We have the energy of a rock show now. Especially if you’re in a rock club and you have a close-to-sold-out or a sold-out crowd, the energy of these shows has been incredible.”
Punch Brothers with Minton Sparks
Tuesday, Feb. 5
315 W. Broadway
$26.50; 7:30 p.m.