If you haven’t heard the Punch Brothers before, now is the time to have a listen. The five piece progressive bluegrass band will play the Lobero Theatre next Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m.
The Punch Brothers and their mandolinist, Chris Thile (formerly of the well-loved trio, Nickel Creek), are gods in the bluegrass community, but their
Matter: Art by Eddie Aispuro – Gallery 479 – Until Fri. Nov. 30
appeal is not by any means constricted to one genre. In fact, Thile was awarded a MacArthur award (a.k.a. a “Genius Grant”) this October for his work as a composer and musician across genres. The many musical styles that the band mixes — ranging from traditional folk and bluegrass to jazz and even classical — is a key part of what makes the Punch Brothers worth a listen for any fan of excellent musicianship, bluegrass connoisseur or no.
The band’s unwillingness to be labeled as just bluegrass is a topic that came up quite a lot in a recent interview I had with Chris Eldridge, the band’s guitarist.
“When we first started out, there was a dissonance between what people thought our band was going to be … because we came from the bluegrass world and we were playing the instruments you use in a bluegrass ensemble but playing music that was really pretty far from the origins [of bluegrass],” Eldridge said.
In the beginning, Eldridge said, there was some confusion from audiences who expected traditional string band sounds, especially from certain regions, like the South. But, he shared, in the six years that they have been together, people everywhere have become much more receptive to the music.
At the time of the interview, the band had recently returned from touring in Australia; Eldridge explained that playing there and in Europe is refreshing because audiences do not have the same sense of history or expectations that American string band fans do.
“The Australian audiences were able to appreciate us based on what they were seeing and hearing rather than comparing us to anything, and that’s a nice thing,” Eldridge said. “It’s nice to have people who just listen with open ears.”
This is one of the reasons the band has shied away from the bluegrass label. People hear bluegrass and assume it’s going to be something rigidly traditional (Eldridge mentioned Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys) or their idea of bluegrass is something like Mumford & Sons.
“There’s a very wide range between Bill Monroe and Mumford & Sons,” Eldridge said. “[Bluegrass] encompasses so much stuff. So we were hesitant to use that label just because people would come to our shows expecting one thing — you know, a hot bluegrass pickin’ show — and they were getting this weird, avant-garde, string band chamber music stuff.”
But not to fear: the Punch Brothers have not left the traditional bluegrass community in the dust. In fact, most of the members were raised in that community.
“Both my parents are bluegrass musicians. I grew up in festivals and stuff. But especially Thile and Gabe
[Witcher] and Noam [Pikelny] … It was really healthy for all of them … how encouraging all the older musicians were and what a cool, welcoming thing it was,” Eldridge said. “As time has gone on, we’ve started to embrace [the bluegrass genre] again — we’re proud to be part of that continuum.”
So, in the end, why should Santa Barbarans take the time to see the Punch Brothers at Lobero next Tuesday night, aside from the fact that the band is made up of award-winning musicians who have won the hearts of traditional and non-traditional music lovers worldwide?
“We’re trying to be a band that’s existing in the present and that’s being influenced by existing in the present. We’re trying to make our own music — our string band music — but make it totally reflective of everything that’s going on around us rather than things that went on way back in the day,” Eldridge said.
And that’s what you’ll get: musicianship par excellence that reaches back to traditional instrumentation, but forward as well. Punch Brothers offer a contemporary, accessible take on genres that have rich histories and endless joy and soul. That’s something I think anyone can appreciate.