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Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning to Love the Punch Brothers: Punch/Counterpunch

For this reviewer and hundreds of concert goers, the Punch Brothers’ stellar February 15 performance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton was just what the music gods ordered. Just as significant, the strong turnout offered evidence that the Brothers are catching on with bigger, broader audiences.

For the band--a confederation of music boundary-spanners who challenge listeners with eclectic compositions and improvisations—that’s sparkling good news. Not that the Brothers invariably turn tradition on its head. (They did, in fact, perform a handful of traditional tunes with impeccable respect.)  But by and large, tradition and roots for the Punch Brothers are points of departure—a key resource for explorations across genres that can take unexpected (sometimes high-stakes) twists and turns. When the train leaves the station, American roots might morph on a dime into indie pop, which in turn may reconfigure, say, into disciplined yet freewheeling excursions with the plasticity of chamber music by Bartok and late Ravel.
Such disciplined freedom gooses up risk-taking by the band’s virtuosic front line players—Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (violin), and Noam Pikelny (banjo)--all three who can navigate any musical byway or conversation. And all five “brothers” (Chris Eldridge on guitar and Paul Kowert on bass complete the set) make a convincing case for telepathy via music.

Punch/Counterpunch. Still, there’s a coalition of listeners who don’t get the Punch Brothers. Not only the roots music police, but indie pop listeners who can’t stand classical and roots, and classical fans who throw up ramparts against trespassers into their magic kingdom. Then there are those who bridle at dissonance, even though the Punch Brothers always maintain a tonal center. (They do use dissonance strategically, for added spice and surprise.)  And still others get thrown by the frequently break-neck morphings of their compositions and improvisations.

For many, though, the above misgivings are precisely what make the music stimulating—they spike the punch. Indeed, they mobilize the neuroplasticity of the listener's brain on music, creating novel neural connections that that keep on giving.
The conservative coalition aside, I'm surprised that Who’s Feeling Young Now? –the Punch Brothers’ splendid 3rd full-length cd, released in early 2012—wasn’t on more top-ten roots album lists for 2012.  It certainly was on mine. If the Northampton audience had its say, you can bet it would have been on theirs. 
Apotheosis Now.  It did, though, in January/February 2013, make the 2012 ten-best list in Songlines, arguably the planet’s premier world music magazine. “String groups don’t get much more exciting or dynamic than this,” wrote Jo Frost, who  with Songlines editor Simon Broughton, made the final picks—most of which were drawn from the ten “Top of the World” selections that appeared in each issue during the previous year. Oddly, when I backtracked to find the original review, it wasn't on any of the monthly Top of the World lists, all whose albums had received five- or and four-star ratings. So, I uprooted the original review in the April/May issue, which gave the album a middling three stars:

All that genre-busting and tricksy instrumental paradiddling might be hugely impressive, but at the end of the day, the Punch Brothers are at their most affecting when at their least adventurous,
wrote reviewer Matthew Milton.

Happily, more adventurous heads and justice prevailed. Progress in music and the joys of neuroplasticity won the day. I'll take odds that Songlines and the Northampton audience are still feeling young now.

Punch Brothers on Austin City Limits "Movement and Location" from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Fellow Travelers: The Warsaw Village Band. Like the Punch Brothers, they deconstruct their own roots in the service of cross-genre exploration.  A tour of their latest album, Nord.

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