Back in July I visited Nashville for the first time, consuming bourbon, beer and burgers in Broadway bars and soaking up the hurting songs of Merle Haggard and George Jones played by a couple of fantastic, authentic country bands. Both bands repeatedly and pointedly lamented that they were among the few remaining local purveyors of “real” country music—unlike most of the bands on the strip, who were playing some kind of watered down country that consisted mostly of classic rock covers performed on Telecasters. I felt for them. And I preferred the music they were playing. As I looked up at a sign on the wall that read Hank You, I felt like I was appreciating and supporting a powerful and unique part of music history. It does seem that a lot gets lost along the way when it comes to musical tradition… those who pioneer the genres are rarely equalled by those who follow.
But from time to time, we see musicians who value and understand the traditions, but also dare to take them to another level. Punch Brothers, led by charismatic mandolin virtuoso/singer Chris Thile, are a perfect example of this. Several members of the group started performing professionally as children in bluegrass bands. They honed their chops (to a very high level) and, along the way, were influenced by a wide variety of other musical styles. In the documentary “How to Grow a Band”, which chronicles the early years of Punch Brothers, we see Chris on the phone with a British promoter, complaining that they’re being billed as a bluegrass band—and should not be. In another scene, John Paul Jones talks about the rare creative opportunity that the band saw and seized. Unlike the commercial bands on Broadway in Nashville, Punch Brothers are true artists, doing what great artists do: creating something new out of everything that went before. They play classical music, Radiohead covers, progressive indie pop and polyrhythms, and still evidence a profound respect for their roots. There’s no sacrilege here, just glorious creation.
One thing that creative freedom leads to is, you guessed it, effect pedals (you knew I was leading up to this somehow). Does this look like a traditional bluegrass band to you? I see a lot of hardware on that floor…
Here’s Chris Thile checking out the Envelope Phaser at a rehearsal in Brooklyn:
Bassist Paul Kowert, who studied with Edgar Meyer, has been using the Disnortion pedal liberally both live and on the band’s latest album Who’s Feeling Young Now? “Disnortion is working every day and kicking ass,” says front-of house engineer David Sinko. “I brag on it everywhere.” Check out this live video for a taste:
I’m told that guitarist Chris Eldridge has taken possession of an Infinity Looper, so the Punch Brothers stage is likely to only get more cluttered…
If you want to hear some incredible musicianship in a truly fresh context, do yourself a favor and check out Punch Brothers! www.punchbrothers.com