Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Punch Brothers meld bluegrass, classical and more in Newman Center opener

Chris Thile and Punch Brothers open the Newman Center’s 2010–11 season on Sept. 30. Photo: C. Taylor Crothers

When Steve Seifert, executive director of the Newman Center, came up with the theme of “legacies” for this year’s Newman Center Presents concert series, ensembles like Punch Brothers were exactly what he had in mind.

“It’s a string band, bluegrass instrumentation, basically, but not strictly bluegrass in what they play,” Seifert says of the five-man group that opens the Newman Center’s 2010–11 series on Sept. 30. “It’s hard to put a particular label on what it is they do. Chris Thile composes for them, and it’s almost classical chamber music for string band in that sense, but they improvise like jazz artists, they bring world music influences to what they do, and they can play bluegrass, too. To me it was an example of an artistic legacy — a very specific kind of musical genre that they’ve taken and massaged in their own way to become something new and different.”

Thile — the mandolin-playing phenom who first wowed audiences as part of the award-winning acoustic trio Nickel Creek — originally put the band that would become Punch Brothers together to back him on his 2006 solo album, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. But as guitarist Chris Elridge recalls, the backup band quickly took on a life of its own.

“When we got together for the very first rehearsal, to just work on that music and also to see what it felt like for us to all play together — from the first minute there was this instantaneous feeling that went from ‘Oh wow, this feels good’ to ‘This is special, let’s be a band,’” says Eldridge, formerly a member of bluegrass band the Infamous Stringdusters. “The whole concept changed instantaneously, which was really amazing.”

With a lineup that also included banjo player Noam Pikelny, formerly of Colorado’s own Leftover Salmon; fiddle player Gabe Witcher; and bassist Greg Garrison (since replaced by Paul Kowert), Punch Brothers released its first official album, Punch, in 2008. Its centerpiece was “The Blind Leading the Blind,” a 40-minute classical-folk hybrid written by Thile. The band’s new album, Antifogmatic, is another collection that pushes the limits of what a string band can do, mixing lively bluegrass with classical structures, jazzy improv with muted melodies that recall experimental rock bands like Radiohead.

“Punch Brothers is very ambitious in a certain way; the music is more arranged in general than anything I’ve personally ever done before,” Eldridge says. “It’s a constant challenge to me to make it sound really good and be fully inside of it. Some of the music can be difficult for us, but of course we don’t ever want it to sound difficult. It pushes me way harder than anything I’ve ever done before, and I love that about it.”

It’s just that level of difficulty, Seifert says, that makes Punch Brothers the perfect opener for the Newman Center’s “legacies” season.

“To me, they’re an example of the cutting edge of artists who occupy a lot of these different worlds at the same time,” he says. “Who are enormously talented, who could play chamber music, classical repertoire, if they wanted to, they just don’t want to stop there, so they draw from all these other traditions and create their own expression.

“To me, that’s terribly exciting and entertaining, and we’re encouraging our audience to open their ears and eyes and experiment a little bit, take a little risk with us. They may not like everything they hear, but we’re not sure they would otherwise have a chance to experience it.”

Punch Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 in DU’s Newman Center, 2344 E. Iliff Ave. A free “Behind the Curtain” lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $32–$48; visit for tickets and more information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *