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Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

Punch Brothers Preserve Bluegrass’s Spirit of Innovation

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There’s nothing like a crowd to drive ambitious souls in new directions. So while the Brooklyn quintet Punch Brothers is a string band with a long collective pedigree in roots music, they’re also notable for their skill in defying convention.

“Folk music is a huge element of what we do, but it’s not the primary element,” says banjo player Noam Pikelny. “I feel like the end result of our compositions are the synthesis of all these great styles we’ve grown to love over the years.”

Indeed, their latest release, last year’s Who’s Feeling Young Now?, calls to mind a variety of acts and time periods. The banjo’s echo-laden drone gives “Movement and Location” the dislocated dreaminess of a Radiohead song—it’s balanced by a particularly twangy take on Radiohead’s “Kid A”—while “Patchwork Girlfriend” channels a woozy, dingy ragtime gait that has more in common with Squirrel Nut Zippers than Bill Monroe. “Hundred Dollars,” meanwhile, swaggers with slow-burn bluesy menace.

Producer Jacquire King (Smash Mouth, Kings of Leon) played an important role in the album’s sound, essentially becoming a sixth member of the band. He abetted a unique recording process that employed a bevy of instrumental effects.

“The instruments are miked like they would be in a traditional acoustic recording, but it goes through these guitar amplifiers which tightens up the sound and sometimes gives it this break up or natural distortion,” Pikelny says. “I think it brought out the best of us in the studio.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that Punch Brothers aren’t garden-variety Americana hipsters. The band formed in 2006 around acclaimed Nickel Creek singer/mandolinist Chris Thile. The group initially assembled to perform a 40-minute four-movement musical suite written after Thile’s 2003 divorce and poetically titled it “The Blind Leading the Blind.” It premiered at Carnegie Hall and became a substantial part of their 2008 debut disc, Punch.

Thile’s crack band includes skilled session players like fiddler Gabe Witcher (who made guest appearances with Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam and others), former Infamous Stringdusters guitarist Chris Eldridge and ex-Leftover Salmon member Pikelny. Witcher produced Pikelny’s late-2011 release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, which was nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Bluegrass Album.

“I had been nominated in the past for some recordings of Punch Brothers but they eliminated the category [Best Country Instrumental Performance] a few years ago, so it was a pleasant surprise,” Pikelny says. “It’s very exciting. I have my concession speech prepared.”

That’s not the only honor the band members have received. Thile is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow (aka the “Genius Grant”), an honor that comes with a half-million dollar award. Thile’s bandmates haven’t let having a certified genius in their midst go to their heads, though.

“We had a fairly high estimation of him even before the MacArthur prize, so we’ve been keeping him honest and giving him a hard time for years, so not much has changed,” Pikelny says.

The Punch Brothers’ current tour represents the last chance for fans to catch the group this year, short of the odd festival appearance. After releasing two albums in quick succession and promoting them on the road, the band is ready to take a break and recharge. Everyone has a side project to nurture, though they also hope to spend some of this year writing together with the goal of releasing a new album next year.

In the meantime, they’re focused on expanding their creative palette. While the band members all feel intimately connected to bluegrass, they don’t necessarily believe they’re doing it any favors relegating it to the past. Their approach is one of engagement and, they hope, innovation.

“When we look back at the pioneers of bluegrass and the guys that really potentially invented this style or made the biggest mark on their various instruments, the common thread is the spirit of innovation rather than a certain texture or a certain style of song,” Pikelny says. “They left this legacy that suggests pretty clearly to musicians that they should be following their own hearts and minds in trying to create something new, rather than trying to replicate something.

“So when people refer to us as a bluegrass band, I take it as a complement,” Pikelny continues, “because bluegrass to me just represents this real spirit of innovation. We’re not preservationist at all, but if there was anything to be preserving, it’s that spirit.”

Punch Brothers play the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. with opener Anaïs Mitchell.