Perhaps it started with Dawg music, the progressive, jazz-informed bluegrass associated with the mandolinist David Grisman and such cohorts as Tony Rice and Daryl Anger. And perhaps the long-running chops comedy of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones was its next big expression, followed closely by the more compositionally ambitious chamber folk and quasi-classical efforts of Edgar Meyer – often in collaboration with Yo Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor, who has himself tried his hand at sweeping, Coplandesque orchestral suites. But somehow, situating the Punch Brothers in this great tradition of newgrass and contemporary roots/classical fusion just doesn’t feel quite right.
The difference isn’t all that hard to locate. The Punch Brothers hit the stage looking like a youngish traditional bluegrass quintet. Within a few notes, they make it apparent that their chops are conservatory-grade and that their repertoire and style matrix are demonstratively broad: all still consistent with newgrass and the musically inclusive legacy of Grisman. What takes a few numbers to recognize is that the Punch Brothers are all about songs – very serious songs – in a way that most progressive bluegrass is not.
But wait: If you’re imagining listener-friendly, graciously updated folksongs with a bit of a modern groove and a contemporary jones – songs of the kind that Chris Thile made with his first big project, Nickel Creek – then take a very sharp left from there into a world of real difficulty, (con)fusion and art. The Punch Brothers do serve up the occasional sophisticated swing tune, like the lecherous and musical-theater-inspired “Patchwork Girlfriend” (from 2012’s Who’s Feeling Young Now?). Even less frequently, they burn barns in the traditional fashion of the people with such live-favorite bluegrass wigouts as “Rye Whiskey” (from 2010’s Antiphogmatic). But the vast majority of the grooves on the Punch Brothers’ vinyl are dedicated to unadulterated, unapologetic, virtuoso art song: texturally and harmonically complex compositions with very few solos; long, through-composed song forms atop which float Thile’s legato and (sometimes) infuriatingly slow-developing melodies.
Consider “Familiarity,” the first track on 2015’s T-Bone Burnett-produced The Phosphorescent Blues. To put it simply, if you have never heard the Punch Brothers before, then you have never heard anything like this before, these ten minutes of woven, Modernist string arpeggios, polyrhythmic chunking, arcing melodies with forestalled resolutions and stylistic disjunctions (dig that Palestrina-by-way-of Brian-Wilson a capella chorale about four minutes in). But if you are familiar with their previous records, “Familiarity” is unironically just that: Except for some subtle drumming and a hint of electric guitar (both Punch Brothers firsts), this is business as usual – albeit some of the strangest and most stubbornly original business out there.
The Punch Brothers kill live. Their gravely excellent records don’t even begin to hint at Thile’s goofball energy and wit (the reasons, one assumes, that he was tapped to replace Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion). While the records can be a demanding-if-not-grueling listen even for folks like me who relish the difficulty, the fellows are genuine crowdpleasers live. They always play a handful of surprising covers. Thile has been an unabashed indie-rock fanatic for years. Nickel Creek covered Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger,” for Pete’s sake, and the Punch Brothers’ live take on Of Montreal’s “Gronlandic Edit” is a thing of inexplicable rightness. But even when playing such forbidding epics as “Familiarity,” the band’s combination of sheer instrumental prowess and strict commitment to their novel ensemble concept is slack-jaw-stunning to be in a room with. Maybe this is what roots music sounds like on Venus.
The inimitable-so-don’t-even-try Punch Brothers will be at the Bearsville Theater – bridging the gaps between Levon’s barn, Bowery Presents and the Maverick Concerts as if they were born for it – on Monday, December 14. Gabriel Kahane opens at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $40 and are available at www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Thile will be back in the Valley in a couple of weeks for a duo date with the brilliant jazz piano renegade Brad Mehldau at the Falcon in Marlboro on December 29. Look for a preview of that concert in next week’s Almanac Weekly.
Punch Brothers, Monday, December 14, 8 p.m., $40, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.bearsvilletheater.com.