The Punch Brothers blast through the typical and give us the profound
There are few things more entertaining than a prodigious mandolin player. Chris Thile, mover and shaker of the Punch Brothers, is one such musician. For playing such a small instrument his movements are exaggerated and almost frenzied. One of the great joys of the band’s show at the Jefferson Theater was watching him leap across the stage only to glance at his fingers and realize that they are moving so fast they blur.
Thile is not the only Punch “brother” with musical skill. Each member of the band is a classical master of his instrument, and is often recognized as one of, if not the best, in his field. Gabe Witcher (fiddle) has contributed to various film music scores as a violinist, Chris Eldridge (guitar) founded the critically acclaimed bluegrass band the Infamous Stringdusters and Paul Kowert studied under Edgar Meyer, a bluegrass musician and composer known for arranging pieces ranging from jazz to classical. Thile himself, who mastered had the mandolin by age 14, was the driving force of Nickel Creek, bluegrass’s sweethearts of the 1990s. Such success at a young age naturally prompts fears of peaking too soon, but Thile has continued to grow as a musician and challenge himself.
The Punch Brothers, who formed in 2006, are young and growing still, but with their instruments they are old, perhaps even wise.
In their freshman album as the Punch Brothers, Punch (2008), Thile composed a four-movement, 40-minute string suite. Though there hasn’t been a composition of that capacity since, the band hasn’t lost any sense of ambition. In the documentary How to Grow A Band, which details the formation of the band, its talent and its subsequent success, Thile consistently refers to a concern about stretching himself musically but his fears subside when he plays for his fans who enthusiastically applaud after every song.
The band is certainly prolific, having released three albums since 2008 and multiple singles along the way. The Punch Brothers, both as individuals and as a group, have earned the enthusiastic praise of virtuosos like Bela Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma. But this nominal acclaim is hardly what makes the Punch Brothers so compelling. The records themselves are unfailingly good and the composition is meticulous.
Their live show hypnotized the Jefferson Theater audience with their music but also with their general quirkiness. The Punch Brothers are all passion and no condescension. Composed or improvised, planned or spontaneous, the live sound that comes from a Punch Brothers concert is like nothing you will hear again.