There are bluegrass bands, country bands, indie, hard rock and alt rock bands, roots bands, pop bands, blues bands, punk bands, dance bands, soul groups, jazz combos, chamber ensembles. Genres on lists as long as Kevin Durant’s arm.
And then there are the Punch Brothers.
Oh sure, their foundation, as it were, may be in bluegrass, usually with a “progressive” fronting it, and it’s a handy enough label when looking at their classic bluegrassian instruments: mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle.
And while bluegrass is a perfectly fine genre, the Punch Brothers bust through that label early and often in their concerts and albums, with all the ease of schoolboy football players tearing through those paper barriers that purport to separate their locker room from the field under Friday night lights.
Perhaps you have heard or seen them, or at least heard of them? If not, let this post serve as an introduction to what in my estimation is an altogether singular musical experience, unlike most any other you’re likely to encounter in your life.
A taste of that here, if you’d like, or else you can loop back later and sample the music in one swoop. Your choice!
First, the sheer talent of the players, oh my word!
Actually, don’t take my word for it, because among the musical literati that includes scores of critics and some pretty knowledgable musicial friends of my own, there is almost universal acclaim for the sheer technical skill of these still young (mid-30s-ish) men.
But the virtuostic individual skill set isn’t necessarily the thing.
Nor are the group’s lyrics—cooperative projects involving and credited to them all—the thing, though the lyrics are literate, intriguing, sometimes opaque but not impenetrable.
(Given my aging ears along with the group’s lush, intensely rhythmic instrumentation [without drums!], and lead singer/mandolinist Chris Thile’s sometimes breathy, bordering-on-falsetto delivery, figuring out lyrics in the listening can be a fool’s errand, but reading them very much serves as its own reward.)
Nor does the group produce all that many particularly memorable melodic riffs that have you humming snippets of one song or other as you leave the concert hall.
But oh, the compelling, complex, and ever surprising sounds they make together.
The well-wrought dissonance.
The conversation between their instruments.
The sheer immersion, the joy, and what I would describe as the sacred wonder of their music-making, live, in the moment, five human beings speaking and exulting in an entirely different language that at their rarefied level, only they truly understand and anticipate. All of it in a public conversation they are having on stage, the irony being that it feels uncannily cloistered at the same time.
Here, try another, a little Debussyian impressionism for your Saturday.
It’s a standard gambit of musical acts to have a kind of dueling guitars segment wherein two players will wail away in turn, topping each other in a good-natured, mock “competition” that invariably delights audiences.
There’s not the least bit wrong with that, and although the Punch Brothers regularly turn physically toward each other and tend to hover in much tighter proximity than most other bands (as in the performance above), there is never the slightest whiff of “competition,” feigned or not, when two or more of them move so close together that their instruments almost kiss.
What’s going on with the Punch Brothers at those moments is not competition, but communion—a deeply collaborative musical odyssey that undergirds each song, each phrase that builds upon itself and the responses it engenders from the other band members.
The effect is hypnotic, because as the audience, we feel let in on something reverent and profound. Sure, the artists are there to entertain and make a living, but music-making at this level, with its fidelity to something far larger than the skill of the individual players, transports an audience to a state of hushed rapture, almost slack-jawed at the combination of technical virtuosity, creativity, and sheer musical communication it is witnessing on stage.
And I daresay, it also transports the players, their tight focus on each other’s playing as well as their own showing through in every ear-cocked gaze.
Oh, but are they having a fine time up there!
So did I on Thursday night on the lawn at Sonoma State University, where the Brothers—none of them related by blood—held forth for a couple of hours from the stately symphony hall, whose doors conveniently open for lawn seating and picnicking on a summer’s eve. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and like their own multi-layered musical textures, the experience built winningly upon itself from the first time.
The gods willing for the band and for me, there will be many more such shows for both of us.
This thoroughly delightful performance was for the benefit of Bedstock, a “one-of-a-kind, online music festival where artists play from bed for sick kids stuck in theirs.” One gets the sense some clever promoter could corral the band into a slightly oversized bathtub and the music would come out just as impeccable as ever.
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Small Punch Brothers phot near top of page by cp_thornton, Cleveland, Ohio https://www.flickr.com/photos/cpthornton/
Drew, great string combo. They’re appearing at UT’s Bass Hall in Austin on September 13th. Claire and I might make the 2-hour drive to see them. I love Debussy’s “Passepied”, but I’ve only heard it as a piano suite. Never just strings. Thanks for the listening essay!
Sounds like the perfect excuse for Ma & Pa Kettle to go into Da Big City, Robert! Check this Brandenburg Concerto of theirs—a few years ago now, but still just ridiculous in the range it shows these guys possess. Really: Bachian bluegrass?? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcZDI63yO1c
Most descriptive post Drew – words can never render firsthand experience a fully satisfying representation, but this was a noble attempt! I stumbled upon the Punch Bros about 4-5 yrs ago at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (wondrous free 3-day 7 stages musical celebration in GG Park SF) and was stunned, been a fan ever since. We love to categorize musical styles/genres and the Punch Bros pose an insurmountable challenge – the musical virus or platypus perhaps?? Interested readers can just poke around YouTube for hrs checking these dudes out, while the Punch Bros. will not necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, one can’t help but be floored by their genre bending talents! (an interesting aside, Chris Thile took over as host for NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, now called Live From Here, see: https://www.livefromhere.org)…
I caught them in Boise when they came through a week and a half ago. I remember seeing Nickle Creek maybe 10 years ago and remember thinking of Thile, “there’s something special there.” Time has proven that assessment true, and even reinforced it. After the show we tried to find a category for the PBs, but that proved pretty impossible. New Grass just doesn’t do it. As you so well point out they are singularly of their own category. I can’t help but think of Thile in particular as a sort of nascent Yo Yo Ma figure. One who achieves mastery in one genre, but then finds it’s way too limited to contain the immense talent. They both have generous and open spirits, and a childlike glee that says to their many collaborators, “Guys!…check THIS out!!” It’s all just so damn much fun for them, and for us. My oh my, what a wonderful day we’re having…..
Of course, Thile and Ma have worked together. https://youtu.be/770rJqDwRXo
Kevin, your comment reminds me that in the end, however the hell we yearn to “genre-fy” any artistic expression, the key points are, “Do I like it? Does it move me? Does it make me tap my toes, hum along, drop my jaw, laugh-cry-dance, swell my heart, think harder and feel more deeply? If so, it’s great art—whatever label we give its particular expression.
Dennis, has Yo Yo Ma yet managed to get around to all the fabulous musicians he wants to create something wondrous with? He sure seems to be working at it, and his taste is impeccable! Cultural treasure, is he, and indeed, he and Thile are soul brothers of a sort; powerful talents with their hearts in the right place. Could art yet save the world? I’d make no big bets on that, but on certain majestic occasions that aren’t as rare as we tend to think, it sure seems to give the world a run for its money.
“Save” seems a high bar. I’ll take the moments of transcendence via art, mix it with a good midterm result, and hope for the best.
Punch Brothers have been on the periphery of my musical field of vision for years but I have never focused on them. Now is the time, clearly. Thank you for presenting us this musical artistry and honorable – and calming – distraction from the trainwreck in our capitol!
So nice to hear from you, Jeanette! Thought the Hillary post might bring you out of the woodwork, but maybe it’s better to go with the Punch Bros. in these, ahem, “trying” times…
Definitely go see them; You Tube has an amazing array of their work (what a world we live in!), but there’s no substitute for live performance, there with hundreds or thousands of your like-minded homeys…
I love the 5/4 time on :”It’s All Part of the Plan”.
I don’t know enough about time to have noticed, Kirk, but isn’t that what Brubeck did when he set the world on fire with “Take Five?”
Yes. Paul Desmond whose bluesy alto sax solo dominates the cut composed “Take Five” in quintuple time (5/4), which complemented Brubeck’s penchant to experiment with a variety of sounds from around the world (Turkey, Bulgaria, Eurasia, Brazil and so on).
Paul Desmond – one of my favorite all-time jazz musicians. Take Five (the album) is such a classic. He is one of my Pandora stations – how’s that for a 21st century tribute!
Yes, and another fire set was “Money” by Pink Floyd, 7/4 time. And my favorite….”The Twelve Days of Christmas” by Bela Fleck and the Fleck Tones uses 12 time signatures and 12 different Key Signatures!!!!!
Thanks for the introduction to these guys, Andrew. I find them enthralling and mesmerizing. I just want to dance a jig when I hear them!
I’m very happy for that, Karen! Jig on!—and then make plans to see them live. Amazing as You Tube is, having it happen right in front of you in real time is a different kinda magic…