The Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers

The highlight for me today was the invitation by Ed Ward and Colleen Kennedy to go backstage and see the  Grammy Award-winning, progressive Bluegrass band the Punch Brothers. This band has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman . They recently produced a single for the blockbuster movie The Hunger Games. I was accompanied by Gillian Pearson of the Ulster Scots Agency. Beginning with the Open House Festival at Empire Music Hall in Belfast on November 5th, they will make several headline stops in the UK including Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and London. 

Chris Thile: mandolin, vocals
Chris Eldridge: guitar, vocals
Paul Kowert: bass, vocals
Noam Pikelny: banjo, vocals
Gabe Witcher: violin, vocals

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Punch Brothers are the New York City-based quintet of mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher.  Their new album Who’s Feeling Young Now?, produced and engineered by Jacquire King, contains some of the most exhilaratingly direct, sonically daring performances the group has ever recorded. Already, Vanity Fair has hailed the album as “their most expressive work yet as an ensemble — sophisticated, pop-y, kinetic and profound, all at once.” The New Yorker calls it “a mystical alchemy of old-time music and contemporary sensibilities” As the five members, ranging in age from their mid-20’s to mid-30’s, have matured together on the road and in the studio, their approach to writing and performing has, conversely, become looser, simpler, and, in a sense, more unaffectedly youthful. In fact, the title song on the new disc—featuring rumbling bass, skittering violin, and wailing multi-tracked vocals—sounds like hard-charging string-band punk rock. 

The group, as virtuosic as it is freewheeling, evolved out of a 2007 collaboration on Thile’s string-band suite, The Blind Leading the Blind, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in a series curated by composer John Adams.The band officially changed its name first to The Tensions Mountain Boys and then settled on Punch Brothers. The band’s name comes from the critical line of an earworm jingle that is the centerpiece of Mark Twain’s short story “A Literary Nightmare” (later re-published as Punch, Brother, Punch). The chorus of the jingle consists of two lines, “Punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the pansenjare”, that are said to be the mantra of railroad conductors. Its debut disc for Nonesuch Records, Punch, was released in 2008, followed by the Jon Brion-produced Antifogmatic (2010). The five members each have impressive resumes within the progressive string-band scene and are regularly sought-after as guest stars and session players. Punch Brothers are currently featured on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games and the Chieftains’ 50th Anniversary disc, Voice Of Ages. As guitarist Eldridge notes,“Every little side project we’ve done has helped us come back to Punch Brothers with new ideas and new energy and a new sense of confidence, a righteous need to create stuff.”

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