Punch Brothers take Aspen stage
September 1, 2011
ASPEN – When fiddler Gabe Witcher and mandolinist Chris Thile, now bandmates in the string quintet Punch Brothers, first met, their focus was just to play – and not even with their instruments.
Witcher was 9, Thile three years younger, and though they became acquainted on the Southern California bluegrass festival circuit, the two did kid stuff – throwing around a football, rafting on the river, fishing. “Then, when it came time to play, we got together and played music,” said Witcher, who, at the age of 6, had formed the Witcher Brothers with his father, Dennis, while Thile went on to found, at the age of 8, Nickel Creek.
Some years later – after Witcher had studied jazz guitar in college, played bass in a punk band and become a busy studio musician in Los Angeles, and Thile had achieved some fame with Nickel Creek, then established himself as an acoustic-music visionary – it was time to stop playing and get serious. Instead of doing what they typically did when they crossed paths – mess around on a bunch of songs they both knew – they decided to dig in and move the music forward.
“We got drunk one night, as it happens, and said, ‘Enough of this jamming. Let’s do a project,'” Witcher, 33, recalled as the Punch Brothers bus crossed from Nebraska into Wyoming. As it happened, Thile was beginning to get serious about formal composition and had the early idea for a long-form piece, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” about the break-up of a relationship.
The two worked on the composition, and called in banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Greg Garrison, rounding out a traditional string quartet to play fairly nontraditional music. While rehearsing “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” the group took enough of a break to record a full album, “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground,” and release it under Thile’s name. The album – which included covers of songs by the White Stripes, the Strokes and Willie Dixon, but leaned in the direction of progressive bluegrass – was excellent, earning a Grammy nomination.
But the potential of what might lay ahead was even bigger. So the fivesome became a band, gave itself the name Punch Brothers, and went on to record an even more ambitious album, 2008’s “Punch.” Featuring the full 42-minute “The Blind Leaving the Blind” suite, and other songs which touched on jazz, classical, bluegrass and folk, the album seemed the next evolutionary step along the trail charted by pickers like banjoist Bela Fleck (with whom Thile often collaborated) and dobroist Jerry Douglas (in whose band Witcher had spent several years).
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“I always hoped there would be a band like Punch Brothers,” Witcher said. “Throughout my career I’ve played with older people. I was always the youngest by at least 20 years. Then, as a studio musician in L.A., it was always, always older people. I always hoped to have a band with people my own age, with the same influences, coming from the same place.”
Punch Brothers, who play Belly Up on Thursday – their Aspen club debut, after appearances at the Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall – have retreated somewhat from their early seriousness. The band’s last album, 2010’s “Antifogmatic,” produced by pop-rock producer Jon Brion, emphasized traditional song structures; there was nothing akin to “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” The quintet – with Paul Kowert, a former Aspen Music Festival student, having taken over the bass position – plans to go into the studio next month to record its third album, and that recording will likely hew closer to “Antifogmatic” than to “Punch.”
“It’s more based on song form, more in the pop realm than the classical realm – even though we don’t really exist in either one of those realms,” Witcher said. “We’re trying to write good, direct music that people will like on the first listen.”
The band continually challenges itself by loading up on covers of Radiohead tunes, and giving songs like The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” an arrangement that is challenging instrumentally and vocally. And there is frequent talk of doing another long-form piece in the near future.
While Witcher said Punch Brothers writes mostly in a collaborative process, Thile is the clear leader, situated center-stage, doing most of the lead vocals and the banter with the audience. And Thile – despite having released a recent album of bluegrassy duets with guitarist Michael Daves, and having another album, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddler Stuart Duncan, due next month – is filled with ideas.
“This record, he’s been the leader for a lot of stuff,” Witcher said. “He’s on a roll, and when he gets on a roll, you just let him go.”
Witcher doesn’t mind having something of a second-line role in the band. He’s glad to have a hand in a group aiming as high as Punch Brothers does.
“There’s never a dull moment, being with four other people trying to make new sounds, push new limits, put new things together,” he said.