Formed by US mandolin prodigy and singer/songwriter Chris Thile – after his previous outfit, the Grammy-winning Nickel Creek, split in 2007 – Punch Brothers are a contemporary stringband extraordinaire whose marriage of bluegrass roots with kaleidoscopic virtuosity has inspired umpteen hyphenated hybrid labels, from chamber-grass to prog-grass.
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Their stratospheric launch-pad approach to those primary Appalachian affiliations is in some ways analogous to that of Lau or fellow experimentalists Spiro to Celtic and English folk, though with added rock and pop appetites.
Regardless of definitions, though, Thile and fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, double bassist Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelny on banjo make truly spellbinding, frequently jaw-dropping music – especially now they’re three albums and tens of thousands of road-miles down the line, having released Who’s Feeling Young Now? earlier this year.
Besides all five having technical chops and brains to burn, seamlessly spanning and interweaving styles from jazz to classical, funk to gospel, trading extraordinary solos all the while – not least Thile’s exquisite lead vocals – the final magic ingredient was the incorrigible joy that shone through the entire dazzling performance, as attested by their ear-to-ear grins at the end of every number.
The ultimate capsule exemplar of their uniquely accomplished fusion was their celebrated version of Radiohead’s Kid A, uncannily faithful yet radically transformed – and segueing cheekily into a classic old time bluegrass hoedown: literally breathtaking.