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Re-inventing Bluegrass 

Brooklyn group Punch Brothers take classical and emotional swings at the genre

So far this year, we've written a lot about bands re-inventing bluegrass. We admit it.

We talked with Vince Herman of the iconic Colorado band Leftover Salmon—a band that bucks the genre by using drums. We introduced you to the music documentary Give Me the Banjo, narrated by legendary actor turned banjo player Steve Martin. And, just last month we brought you our interview with The Infamous Stringduster's Dobro player Andy Hall, who talked about his generation's new spin on song subject matter.

All that bluegrassing wasn't for naught. Not only is Brooklyn-based Punch Brothers, who are playing the Tower on Nov. 26, another great example of a bluegrass-bending group visiting Bend, it just so happens that the band has turned out to be a sort of vortex bringing all three of these previous stories together.

Consider this:

Noam Pikelny, the Punch Brothers' banjoist, was the 2010 winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

Pikelny is a former member of Leftover Salmon.

AND! Chris Eldridge, the Punch Brothers' guitarist, is a founding member of The Infamous Stringdusters.

On top of all this, the Punch Brothers are led by mandolin player Chris Thile—famous for his breakthrough band Nickel Creek.

This cast of all-stars, along with bass player Paul Kowert and fiddler Gabe Witcher, basically means that Punch Brothers is a bluegrass super-group.

Due to their penchant for twisting the genre, The Punch Brothers can aggressively be called the most labyrinthine bluegrass band in America.

Their debut album Punch, introduced listeners to the classical composition skills of Thile with a four-part movement titled "The Blind Leaving the Blind."

Violin, rather than fiddle paired with Thile's mandolin playing set a stirring backdrop for the largely instrumental opus. Those decadent orchestral tracks established Punch Brothers as a group with a new aim—conveyance of emotion, rather than execution of traditional bluegrass instrumentation.

The group at first existed as the backing band for Thile's solo album How to Grow A Woman From the Ground, and that first Punch Brothers album was mainly 40 minutes of Thile's classical bluegrass storytelling. But lately things have been changing.

With the release of their 2012's Who's Feeling Young Now? and the brand new EP Ahoy!, other members of the band are putting their songwriting chops to use.

"I feel like the band over the last three or four years has transitioned into something more collaborative," said banjo player Pikelny in a recent interview with the Source. "When we first formed, it was a vessel to perform Chris' brain child The Blind Leaving the Blind."

While Punch Brothers will probably always be known for the specialness of that first album, the new music has continued to advance the group and their brand of vocal heavy bluegrass even further from the mainstream.

Songs from the new album, like the sonic "Movement and Location" along with the pop savvy "This Girl," still rely on the emotional prowess of all their past music but trend even more toward a tempered display of bluegrass.

The bass is stoic instead of bouncy and the fiddle mimics a cello more than it buzzes. In fact, their music is largely devoid of any dance-worthy songs typical of the genre. This bold move grabbed the attention of establishment giant Austin City Limits, who featured a performance of the band on their legendary show earlier this month.

"That was the big one," said Pikelny of their ACL debut. "It was a real honor and pretty intimidating. That's one that I grew up appreciating and seeing some of my heroes on. Being on the stage was surreal. To me it was more intimidating than being on Letterman or Leno."

That kind of recognition is indicative of the role bluegrass is playing in America today. It is no longer a genre based in the mountains; rather, bands who tackle bluegrass are popping up in metropolises all over the country.

An entire generation of musicians who grew up listening to alternative rock and contemporary pop are now in love with bluegrass instruments like the fiddle and the mandolin. As a result, they can't help but have a different take on the genre. The more of them who collaborate with each other or switch bands, the more new ways of playing bluegrass are represented. It's one of the reasons why there are now whole music festivals dedicated to the genre—big ones.

And in the middle of all this growth is Punch Brothers.

They're a passionate bunch with strong music that can lull you into feeling at ease just as quickly as it can convert you to woe. In short, it's the kind of bluegrass you can sit down and close your eyes to—a welcome change from the danceable jams that define much of the rest of the genre.

Punch Brothers

7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 26

Tower Theatre

835 NW Wall St.

Tickets $25 - $50 at

for hillbillies, they sure dress snappy.

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...
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