The Punch Brothers flip traditional bluegrass on its head
More than one hundred years ago, the songs and instruments of immigrants melded into a new American sound, known as bluegrass, that resounded throughout the Appalachian mountain range. But in the last 40 years, bluegrass has mutated to encompass every other musical genre by adding a frenetic twang. So, when the Punch Brothers launch into a bluegrass version of a Radiohead song, audiences release a collective gasp—not at the audacity, but rather at the band’s profound musicianship, technical mastery and quick pace.
The Punch Brothers are a New York City-based outfit comprised of Nickel Creek founder and recent MacArthur Genius Grant winner Chris Thile (mandolin), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Gabe Witcher (violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Paul Kowert (bass). Together, they weave traditional Irish, Scottish and English sounds with a 21st century sensibility into gold.
On the phone from Oxford, England, where the band is currently touring, guitarist Chris Eldridge says that since surviving Superstorm Sandy, life on the road has been good—albeit hectic. Despite touring for the entire year with only a few breaks, Eldridge takes traveling with a genius in stride. “Chris Thile is an unbelievable musician,” he says. “I am incredibly lucky to be in a band with him and the other three guys—four of my favorite musicians on the planet.”
The son of Ben Eldridge, founder and banjo player of seminal bluegrass band Seldom Scene, Chris Eldridge grew up in a talented Virginian homestead. “Bluegrass was always around the house growing up,” he recalls. “My mother was also a musician and a banjo player as well, which is how my parents met.”
Tony Rice, renowned bluegrass guitarist and a family friend, was also a permanent fixture in Eldridge’s youth. “It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how fortunate I was to grow up in that environment,” he admits. “Growing up with the Seldom Scene as a weird extended family, it took getting older to give me perspective on how incredible the experience was.”
Influenced at an early age by Tony Rice’s collaborations with Jerry Garcia and Seldom Scene’s bluegrass renditions of Eric Clapton and James Taylor songs, Eldridge was brought up with the belief that the line separating bluegrass from contemporary music could (and should) be blurred.
“When I first became aware of the cross-pollinating was when Phish had Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss on a record,” he recalls. “Then I saw Del McCoury at one of the giant music festivals.”
The Punch Brothers’ appreciation for other genres and desire to borrow elements of them make their live shows so unique. On Friday, Nov. 30, the band will unleash that bluegrass amalgam on The Rio Theatre, where fans can expect to hear everything from covers, to Nickel Creek-sounding compositions, to original excursions.
When crafting original songs, Eldridge says that the writing process varies. “It usually starts with a little theme of an idea that one of the five will bring to the band, and the rest will take it and run,” he explains. “The original idea that sparked the song might end up being a small part of the final song once it’s gone through the brain trust.”
That symbiotic relationship shines through on the band’s new EP, Ahoy, a collection of five songs from the “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” recording sessions in Nashville, Tenn. It’s a short but sweet trip—from a heartfelt ballad, to a tribute to Dixie. It might not be Radiohead, but when the band gets cooking, it packs a punch.
The Punch Brothers will play at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-8209.