Punch Brothers | 11.19.08

punch.jpg Punch Brothers is a direct indication of what prodigious collaboration is able to produce.

 

 

Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis

Chris Thile’s new project, Punch Brothers, is a direct indication of what prodigious collaboration is able to produce. It is no doubt each of the members of this amazing formation has been yearning for a higher level of musical challenge. The music of Punch Brothers is not your average bluegrass. It is what comes out of years of experience, from individuals who have become so fluent within the language of their instrument that they are able to produce completely new vocabulary.

The band was originally formed to perform for Thile’s solo album How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, and has since evolved into a presence of its own. Their debut album, appropriately titled Punch, is what brought them to the Sheldon this week.

Punch Brothers is Chris Thile (mandolin), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), and recently Paul Kowert (bass). Each one has musically established themselves within other bands, and has formed a "best of breed" group that is sure to leave any bluegrass fan dazzled.

Eldridge, guitarist for The Infamous Stringdusters and son of bluegrass banjoist Ben Eldridge has reached the level of flatpicking master. His agility was amazing, though it was his dynamic expression, so rarely achieved, that allows him to have attained such a status.

Former Leftover Salmon banjoist, Pikelny has the expertise to make playing the banjo look effortless, so much so that one can barely ascertain the difficulty housed behind his fingers. Each piece was played with such grace and ease that the complexity was forgotten, and the audience was able to lose themselves in the overall sonority of the instrument.

Fiddler Witcher is a sought-after studio musician, performing with a lengthy list of Country greats such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Dwight Yokam. His abilities are vast, and his contribution to Punch Brothers is no doubt a critical one.

Kowert replaces former Punch Brothers bassist, Greg Garrison. Kowert’s potential will be realized within this group, though he has some giant shoes to fill. Regardless, he posesses the skills needed to provide a solid foundation for the group, with an excellent bowing technique to boot.

Thile’s exuberant personality still commands the role of headliner. Performing with an otherwise reserved ensemble, his animated performance style brings an electric force only he can achieve. It is no doubt that his home is on stage.

The group played two sets, with an intermission in between.

The concert’s first half contained songs from Punch, composed collaboratively by the band. One might use the term "intellectual progressive bluegrass" to describe theses songs. Many of them were pop-oriented, with accessible melodies and rhythms. However, seemingly spontaneous complexities were interwoven into each tune. It is rare that any musician, bluegrass or the like, would be able to perform at this level of difficulty.

The second half of the concert was reserved for the performance of Thile’s latest compositional masterpiece. "The Blind Leaving the Blind," an ambitious four-movement suite, is an innovative fusion of classical, bluegrass, and rock elements. Its formal elements contain advanced classical concepts such as baroque fugue, atonal patterns found in avant-garde 20th century compositions, and all while keeping the overall feeling of an accessible folk song. Each movement exhibited extremely complex, asymmetrical meters, what seems to have become the trademark of Thile’s compositions.

While Punch Brothers may be delving into an area of music few can fully comprehend, there isn’t one person who can’t appreciate the level of compositional and technical skill each member possesses. |Sheila Shahpari

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