Smile Politely

Punch Brothers to Perform at The Canopy Club September 9

Bluegrass is special to me because it is an uncorrupted, undisguised form of music. Artists claiming any affiliation to this genre are almost always based around acoustic string instruments, and consequently, bluegrass is earthy, natural and unforced. Furthermore, while bluegrass is influenced by both jazz and traditional Gaelic music, it is rooted most deeply in the mountainous regions of the United States.

Bluegrass is American.

For these reasons, I was a little overexcited at the thought of catching a Punch Brothers show. They are a relatively new quintet fronted by mandolin maestro Chris Thile. The band’s sound, a combination of equal parts bluegrass and classical, is innovative to say the least, and their concert was nothing short of incredible. The show I saw was in Chicagoland — at Ravinia to be exact — but the boys are making their rounds and will appear at the Canopy Club on Tuesday, September 9.

The backbone of Monday night’s show was the Punch Brothers’ debut album, Punch. Early in the set they jumped into “Punch Bowl,” a foot-stomping romp of a bluegrass number with dissonant chords and a dizzying, almost drunken melody. The band’s ability to remain cohesive in a live setting was extremely impressive, especially when one considers the complexity of each arrangement.

As far as mandolin players are concerned, Thile is clearly top notch, but equally impressive is the banjo work of Noam Pikelny. Pikelny, who was schooled in the music program at the good ol’ University of Illinois, had a lot to offer throughout the whole set. His presence was especially strong during the playing of “It’ll Happen,” a plodding waltz that gave him the chance to tinker with a countermelody while the rest of the band played in quiet harmony. Of course, Pikelny also displayed his ability to play fast — scary fast. He and the band as a whole often erupted into a fit of light speed picking, giving almost every tune a catchy, applause-worthy climax. The Punch Brothers also showed their penchant for pop music, covering the likes of Wilco and the White Stripes, and even these songs had a distinct, folksy flavor.

The evening’s main event, was the performance of Chris Thile’s masterpiece, “The Blind Leading the Blind.” A forty-minute epic delivered in four movements, “The Blind Leaving the Blind” is a schizophrenic blend of bluegrass and classical elements that allows equal opportunity for all five band members to showcase their talent.

Other critics love to throw around the term “virtuoso,” as if the word has any definite meaning or as if there are specific criteria that determine when a performer has reached the uppermost echelon. Forget virtuosity; “The Blind Leaving the Blind” is a test of the physical limitations of musicality, and the Punch Brothers themselves are out to prove that nothing is impossible for five men with stringed instruments. Chris Thile rattles off notes at unbelievable speeds, and he does it with the nonchalant air of one making a sandwich. Noam Pikelny often follows suit, churning out banjo licks and layering melodies with the rest of the band. For a piece that is obviously thoroughly rehearsed, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” when performed live, possesses a beautiful sense of spontaneity. The band sometimes seemed to change tempo or dynamic on a whim.

Lyrically, the Punch Brothers take a minimalist approach, and the songs remain largely instrumental, but when Thile does step up to the mic, he gets the job done. His voice is nothing flashy. There are no traces of grandiose vibrato or American Idol-type flamboyance. Thile is simply honest sounding and succinct, rarely crooning more than just two or three lines before diving back into the ensemble.

And really, who needs lyrics when the music is so expressive? My thanks go out to the Punch Brothers for reminding me that it’s possible to say anything through music.

Punch Brothers are at the Canopy Club on Tuesday September 9 at 7 p.m.

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