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Punch funk

By February 9, 2009

Enterprise music critic

This isnÕt your grandfatherÕs old time, front-porch bluegrass; Punch Brothers create contemporary, cutting-edge compositions that just happen to be rooted in bluegrass and folk.

The band will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the UC Davis Mondavi CenterÕs Jackson Hall. Tickets Ñ $45/$35/$25 general, $22.50/$17.50/$12.50 students and children Ñ are available at the Mondavi Ticket Office, (530) 754-2787.

The band is led by composer, singer, mandolin player and Grammy Award-winner Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek. He recruited a renowned group of string players: bassist Paul Kowert, violinist Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny and guitarist Chris Eldridge.

I recently spoke with Eldridge, who was idling in the back of a tour van that was stuck in traffic.

ÒWeÕve been in Baton Rouge the past couple days,Ó he said. ÒWeÕre going to Lafayette to visit friends. ThatÕs a perk of being on tour.Ó

Fans may be surprising to learn that Punch Brothers donÕt actually consider themselves bluegrass.

ÒBut I donÕt know what else you would call it,Ó Eldridge admitted. ÒItÕs a product of what we listen to. We listen to all types of music, and nobody listens to bluegrass per se.Ó

How did the band come about?

ÒChris assembled it. He called us for his solo record in 2005. Once we got together, it became clear that we had something special. As we played, we wanted to explore the chemistry.

ÒOver time, we got out of our other projects and became Punch Brothers.Ó

EldridgeÕs past groups include NashvilleÕs Infamous Stringdusters and his fatherÕs band, The Seldom Scene.

ÒI occasionally play with The Seldom Scene. I really love it, because I get to hang out with my dad.Ó

Pikelny has recorded as a solo artist and collaborated with acoustic players such as John Cowan and Tony Trischka. Witcher is a session player, and has been featured on film soundtracks such as ÒToy StoryÓ and ÒBrokeback Mountain.Ó He also has recorded with Willie Nelson, Beck and Randy Newman.

Kowert, the newest member of Punch Brothers, joined the group this fall. He studied at The Curtis Institute of Music with Edgar Meyer.

Punch BrothersÕ debut album, ÒPunch,Ó is centered around ThileÕs ÒThe Blind Leaving the Blind,Ó a four-movement, long-form folk composition. The album also features four shorter compositions co-written by the band members.

ÒPunchÓ was laid down at ManhattanÕs Legacy Recording studio: a 4,600-square-foot room with a 35-foot high ceiling, often used for large-scale film scoring. The music was captured with three microphones placed high in the room. No overdubs went into the mix.

ÒIt was an enormous amount of recording,Ó Eldridge said. ÒWe spent quite a lot of time getting it right.Ó

The lyrics of ÒBlind Leaving the BlindÓ deal with ThileÕs divorce; the musicÕs melancholy mood complements the theme of uncontrollable loneliness.

ÒThat record deals with loss, but it was just one moment in time,Ó Eldridge said. ÒThereÕs not a ÔPunch Brothers melancholy styleÕ; we also play plenty of upbeat stuff.Ó

In the beginning, the band members were spread across the country; now theyÕre all based in New York.

ÒWe started doing a residency in New York, at a place called The Living Room, two ThursdayÕs a month,Ó Eldridge said. ÒWe wanted to put our creative process on display. ItÕs more loose and open: less structured and rehearsed.Ó

The residency gives Punch Brothers an opportunity to flesh out new songs in front of an audience.

ÒWeÕll work on new material this summer and fall. Hopefully, weÕll have a new album next year.Ó

SaturdayÕs Mondavi Center performance will be Punch BrothersÕ first visit to Davis. On stage, the band displays impressive range: poignant melodic passages, dazzling, hyper-speed picking and soulful vocals. And while these guys do play pre-written material, they always leave room for improvisation.

ÒThere have been some hiccups here and there,Ó Eldridge admitted.

ÒBut itÕs never collapsed into total chaos.Ó

Landon Christensen

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