Smile Politely

Punch Brothers Come to Canopy (Are Not Actually Related)

Punch, brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

These words comprise the chorus of a song noted in the opening lines of Mark Twain’s short story “Punch Brothers, Punch.” Twain, within the story, recalls a time when he read the mentioned song in the columns of a newspaper. The rhythm of the words captivates Twain, and he is paralyzed by the catchy verses for days. He then passes the song to a friend and so on and so on. Oh, the pain of having a tune stuck in your head is certainly a familiar one.

Chris Thile, former vocalist and mandolin player for Nickel Creek, has certainly been guilty of placing infectious melodies in people’s minds. Nickel Creek’s beautiful and catchy bluegrass numbers were loved by anyone with a halfway decent taste in Americana music. It’s no surprise, then, that he’d have an affinity for this particular story about the power of music. Thile’s new group, The Punch Brothers, took their name from Twain’s tale, and they will be appearing tonight at The Canopy Club.

Though the group came together to play on Chris Thile’s 2006 solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, the name and the band came into being in conjunction with their 2008 debut, Punch. Put out by Nonesuch and following the 2007 breakup of Nickel Creek, Punch is an ambitious and complicated piece of bluegrass genius.

The dark album, fueled by late night bar sessions and a divorce, features banjo, fiddle, guitar, stand-up bass and of course Thile’s world-renowned mandolin playing. Punch is built around the epic four-movement piece “The Blind Leading the Blind.” With giant, orchestral-like swells and crescendos, the album plays as much as a classical piece as a bluegrass record. Standout track “Nothing Then” starts with a few bass notes and ominously builds while lines of wedding vows are sung in harmony. The album does nothing but impress.

Twain’s story, however, shows that there is danger involved with becoming a slave to music. The reverend in the story accidentally inserts “Punch in the presence of the passenjare” in his eulogy and is driven to practical madness. Punch is no exception. At times the repetitive patterns and sheer complexity is daunting and almost too much, but in the live setting the pure musicianship exhibited by the quintet will certainly push the music into a realm where foot-tapping will greatly exceed head-scratching.

Labeled a prodigy at age 12, Thile recorded his first acclaimed solo album as a tween (1994’s Leading Off…), was called a virtuoso at 20 and is seen as one of the best mandolin players in the world. The rest of the group falls in line nicely, being some of the best bluegrass musicians out there. The show starts early at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $18. It’ll likely be worth every penny.

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