The dissonant banjo that accompanies the driving mandolin/violin riff kicking off “Punch Bowl,” the opening track of the Punch Brothers’ album (titled Punch, of course), provides an early indication of the unconventional angle the group of bluegrass all-stars takes in their collaboration.
As the three-and-a-half minute song plays out, the band quickly shows off the magic possible when five musicians go exploring together.
The four-movement “Blind Leaving the Blind” follows. Written by mandolinist Chris Thile (formerly of Nickel Creek), the 42-minute piece is hardly your standard verse/chorus/jam Appalachian mountain tune. It’s more like a symphony.
Bluegrass aficionados will not be disappointed. Guitarist Chris Eldridge is a founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters, while violinist Gabe Witcher served as Jerry Douglas’ right-hand man for six years. Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Greg Garrison (bass) come to the band highly respected in the session player and bluegrass worlds.
Punch is held together by Thile’s vocals; his words floating over the music and loosely drawing from the dissolution of his marriage. Astoundingly, the album was recorded live, without any overdubs or pitch correction.
“Everything was sung in the room, which is nerve-wracking,” Thile says. “It’s a way to make sure the tracks you’ve cut have a shape that’s informed by the vocal and a vocal informed by the shape of the track.”
Thile laments the state of pop and commercial country music, where the click of a mouse can now artificially wrench a note into perfect pitch.
“You have all these vocals that, to a trained ear, are absurdly tuned. The natural notes disappear,” Thile says. “As people who have spent their whole lives trying to get in tune or play in time, we avoided the option.”
For the live audience, recording in one take assures listeners a performance that’s equal or grander than the studio tracks. And in the case of Thile’s songwriting, that includes vocals and accompaniment that crescendo and fall back with the emotion behind the words.
“I think there can be a sort of subconscious or conscious and unconscious disparity between lyrics and music,” Thile says. “There are emotive properties that need to coincide. There are plenty of lines where the music completely gives into the melancholy of the lyrics, but not all of those lyrics are melancholy either.”
The Punch Brothers will almost certainly perform “The Blind Leaving the Blind” at Spoleto. For Thile, it’s always a moving piece.
“I’m pretty engaged emotionally,” he says. “There haven’t been many times when I was just gliding over the top.”
Thile’s currently at work on a mandolin concerto, as well as another extended piece for the Punch Brothers. Moving between bluegrass and classical forms continues to attract new and unexpected listeners.
“I’d love to be a part of some Bartok fans sitting next to some Bill Monroe fans sitting next to some Radiohead fans,” he says. “I think it works into the hypothesis that it’s all the same stuff and you just put it in different ways.”
Having performed at the Music Hall with bassist Edgar Meyer last year, and at the Music Farm and the Plex in years past, he’s particularly excited about playing at the Cistern for the “serious music listeners” who attend Spoleto.
“A beautiful place often elicits some of our better performances,” Thile says. “And you always feel fortunate to be providing the soundtrack to a place like that.”