Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
The Punch Brothers were in town here last fall, playing in a big, rather cold and mightily soulless hockey arena, that just happens to throw a big concert here and there. They're mostly of the ilk of the Lady Antebellum and Toby Keith variety, meant to bring out the rural Midwestern crowd, the proud growers and those sorts - to give them a date night and an opportunity to crack open expensive beer tins somewhere other than their living room or the tailgate of a pickup truck. It's nice to mix things up a little bit. The super-group, which is made up of mandolin player/lead vocalist Chris Thile, fiddle/violin player Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and upright bassist Paul Kowert, was on a bus tour, opening up for Mr. Paul Simon. Such an environment and opening for such a man couldn't put a band like the Punch Brothers any more behind the eight ball. Here it is, a group that plays spunky bluegrass music, wears tweed knickers and suspenders, bowler hats when they're relaxing and its job is to entertain thousands and thousands of people who just want to hear "The Boxer."
They need a place where the women are dressed up as well as they are, batting lashes and smelling as purdy as they can, hoping to catch someone's eye. Or they're out for the night, away from the babies for the first time in ages, putting on something nice, ready to dance until far later into the night than they normally let themselves stay up, feeling the love for their spouse rekindle just enough to last until the next time. They need a place that's small and poorly lit, where there are no fancy beers in the building, just whatever's in the tap. It's a place where the floor is littered with peanut shells and it's gritty with dirt that's been gathering for weeks or months. They need a place where they can get the windows steamed up after just one song, where the immediacy of the spirit in their expertly crafted songs grabs you by the heart and the corners of the mouth and just tugs upward. They didn't get a place like that. They got an arena, with a Zamboni parked behind the curtains.
But a funny little thing happened - though it shouldn't be at all surprising. People went wild. They got a standing ovation and people wanted more. They did exactly what their music naturally does. It draws you in so close and you hear Thile singing about women in that old-timey way - comparing them to sweet peaches and cherries - but adding in those sneaky pieces of tongue to modernize the sentiment quite a bit. It's an incredible trick to pull off, but Punch Brothers love songs - of which almost all of them are in some way or another - are twice as salty as the old bluegrass numbers were. He sings, "I love the way she encourages and scolds me," and you know where the band's heads are at. Or you think you know. You're just not sure. They infuse their music with refrains and parts from public domain classics and elsewhere, splicing sounds together to make thoroughly impressive and impressionistic music that works in any old place the choose to play it in - with or without the dirt.