Punch Brothers are writing some of the most technically demanding and powerfully original songs being written today. In the process, they’ve created something that’s never been done before. They’ll be performing at The Orange Peel in Asheville on Monday.
Going into their 13th year together, it appears that they’re finally gaining traction in the commercial market. Earlier this year, they took home the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album for their 2018 release “All Ashore.” It came on their fifth nomination, not to mention another 10-plus or so for their members’ work with other projects.
Not that extraneous awards have anything to do with how they measure success. Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny chuckles as he explains:
“It’s not that it’s not an honor, but we kept losing. We kind of stopped counting because it was getting depressing. Joan Baez had made a beautiful album and we thought it (the Grammy) was her’s for the taking and we were shocked and unprepared and didn’t even have the whole band there.”
Switching to a deeper, facetious voice, he adds: “It’s really nice to finally have a sign from God that what we are doing is worthwhile. I don’t think there is really any other way to gauge that.”
That self-deprecating dark side is one of the first things you notice about Pikelny, and it is immediately endearing. Whether it is deadpan giving his band-mate Chris Thile shit about wishing he had gotten ordained so that he could legally marry folk and formal music, or taking subtle shots at the Hollywood scene (“I get bonus points for using the industry term in this interview, right?”) his wit and stonewall sarcasm almost precede him.
Of course, the first thing you notice when you listen to him play banjo is the confluence of Chicago street-style soul and Fleck theory-thrash flat-picking. It really is something to behold, a banjo player that allows the note to ring out, to decay. A savant with the chops to play whatever fast-grass is out there, but the patience to trust one string when three aren’t necessary. The winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass credits his upbringing, as well as his time running around the Old Town School of Folk Music as a child.
“I really loitered around the Old Town School, which is an amazing institution. We were there at least two days a week for most of my childhood, so when I started playing banjo I was introduced to folk banjo and learning claw-hammer,” Pikelny explains.
“I really enjoyed that and had some great teachers, but then I heard the music of Bela Fleck (his first Flecktones album had come out in ’90 or ’91) and I was transfixed on that sound. I went and saw him play at Navy Pier. I saw it for my own eyes. He was wearing three finger picks just like Scruggs did.”
This combination of old and new, ancient and modern, defines Pikelny’s sound specifically. It also applies to Punch Brothers’ catalog as a whole. Combining elements from each of their backgrounds, reaching toward classical movements, and pushing the limits of their own creative comfort, they offer up a style of music that is equally nostalgic and progressive.
“I don’t describe it (our music) as jazz or bluegrass. It’s hard to come up with a moniker. We are playing string band music but that doesn’t give much of a hint either,” Pikelny delineates.
“The common thread of what has kept us together all these years and what will probably keep us together … is kind of the all-encompassing influences today and the willingness to look in every direction, to draw inspiration from any kind of music or art, these kind of far-reaching interests, this unbridled curiosity.”
“Unbridled curiosity” describes Punch Brothers music more accurately than any genre buzz-word you could apply. The songs are restless and adventurous, an exploration of a place that has never been mapped. They are “Alice and Wonderland” in audio format, a sonic trip to a location you’ve never seen before. At the same time, it somehow feels familiar.
See it for yourself Monday at The Orange Peel.
Noam Pikelny – Banjo
Chris Thile – Mandolin
Paul Kowart – Bass
Gabe Wichter – Fiddle
Bryan Sutton – Guitar
Caleb Calhoun is an author, poet, and journalist who makes his home in West Asheville, NC. He loves wearing dresses, dancing to live music, and his woodlands mermaid, Dr. Gonzo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @gonzonc420 and facebook.com/humansandpoetry.