Punch Brothers still flying under the radar
It’s generally agreed that the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts is one of the better classical-music venues in the Lower Mainland. It remains to be seen, however, if UBC’s most luxurious hall is equally well-suited to bluegrass, although listeners can find out for themselves this weekend, when New York City’s Punch Brothers make their local debut.
This raises another question, however: how did a relatively little-known band consisting of mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and upright bass get booked into a 1,200-seat room?
Noam Pilkeny, the Punch Brothers’ banjo player, has a ready answer: it’s the Mumford effect.
“They [Mumford & Sons] are one of the biggest bands in the world, and because they’re so successful, there can be a misconception that there’s a wholesale acceptance of this music by the general public,” he explains from Birmingham, U.K., on the morning after Barack Obama’s reelection. “Mumford is really the exception to the rule, but I think it creates a rising tide, in that people have become interested in something that’s more authentic, and they’ll follow that path to other artists. There’s at least more visibility for bands like us because of that.”
That makes sense, but only if you take Pilkeny’s inherent modesty into account. Anyone who’s been following acoustic music knows that the senior Brother, 31-year-old Chris Thile, is the most gifted mandolinist to emerge since David Grisman invented “Dawg Music”, circa 1977. He’s also one of a handful of folk-based performers to have been named a MacArthur Fellow, which carries with it a US$500,000 “genius grant”. On top of that, he’s a stellar composer and songwriter who’s also capable of arranging other music—such as Radiohead’s “Kid A”, featured on the Brothers’ recently released Who’s Feeling Young Now?—for bluegrass instruments.
Mumford & Sons’ success certainly hasn’t hurt the Punch Brothers, but they would have made it on their own merits. Still, Pilkeny isn’t buying the idea that his band is on the cusp of a similar commercial breakthrough.
“I guess we’ve had glimpses of mainstream opportunities in that we’ve gotten to play on late-night television shows. We’ve been on the Letterman program; we’ve been on Jay Leno,” he allows. “I guess the closest thing to a mainstream opportunity we’ve had was getting a song on The Hunger Games soundtrack, but I feel we’re still flying under the radar. We’ve never had our music placed in a Burger King commercial, or anything like that. We’ve made our living just by touring and playing to as many people as possible—which is the main way to make a living these days, even if you’re mainstream. There’s no way to really do this other than to get in front of people live and lure them to the show by creating a unique performance experience.”
That, the Punch Brothers certainly do. Pilkeny, guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and bassist Paul Kowert are capable of matching Thile’s fireworks note for note, while the band’s arrangements draw as much on indie rock and contemporary chamber music as on Bill Monroe’s bluegrass template. And, after six years together, the Brothers feel like they’re just beginning to hit their stride.
“It’s been a wild ride, but there’s still an incredible amount of music to discover with each other,” says Pilkeny. “And we’re looking forward to it.”
The Punch Brothers play the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (November 24).