ARE the Punch Brothers a band beyond genre?
Rather than a bluegrass or even nugrass outfit, the group’s publicity blurb describes them, fairly inarguably, as a “virtuosic acoustic quintet” and certainly their current album, The Phosphorescent Blues, amalgamates bluegrass, sophisticated pop, jazz and classical with extraordinary flair.
Speaking to their leader, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, a man as likely to be found playing Bach partitas as raising the dust in a bluegrass number, I remind him that the last time we spoke was all of seven years ago, not long after the Punch Brothers had performed Thile’s chamber suite for bluegrass ensemble, The Blind Leaving the Blind, at Celtic Connections, prompting some restiveness among the shorter attention spans in the Old Fruitmarket.
Thile’s chuckle comes down the line, all the way from Portland, Oregon, where his actress wife, Claire Coffee, is filming the supernatural TV drama Grimm: “I remember it well.” Several albums on, he reckons: “I think at this point we’ve weeded out most of the staunchest, most vocal traditionalists, and now I think our listeners seem to be people who enjoy not knowing what to expect.
“And for me, the art that really gets me going is what surprises me. I don’t want my expectations met; I want them exceeded. I think seven years down the road the boys and I have found a like-minded listenership.”
Audiences are likely to have their expectations more than exceeded when this powerful, yet gleefully unclassifiable, band play Southern Fried, Perth’s annual celebration of American roots music, which runs from 30 July until 2 August. They share the bill at the festival’s opening night with another singular talent, Rhiannon Giddens, who last played Perth in 2010 with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Thile and company then scale new degrees of latitude, making their first Shetland appearance at Mareel, Lerwick, on 3 August.
Not that Thile has any real objection to the bluegrass label, inadequate as such pigeonholing may be. “To be fair, we look exactly like a bluegrass band, and we love that music – we come from there.”
To be sure, the “brothers” tote a straight-up bluegrass armoury with Thile’s mandolin, Gabe Witcher’s fiddle, Chris Eldridge’s guitar, Noam Pikelny’s banjo and Paul Kowert’s double bass, but their string-driven musical intelligence, as The Phosphorescent Blues demonstrates, ensures that a prelude by Scriabin might give way to an old chestnut like Boll Weevil, while they deliver their own songs in a vocal swell reminiscent of the Beach Boys.
The album was produced by the esteemed T Bone Burnett. “Our working relationship with T Bone has always been good. In the studio, he’s not a hands-on producer; he just makes sure that you stay out of your own way.” Thile laughs: “The Punch Brothers are such perfectionists that we’ll wring the life out of something if we’re not careful. T Bone would just say, ‘Hey, you guys got this two hours ago; what are you doing now?’ And, lo and behold, we’d listen to what we’d done two hours ago and realise he was right.”
A stated inspiration for the album was “a longing for community and connection” in the face of ubiquitous digital technology that threatens to alienate us from real personal contact. Ironically, Little Lights, the finale of the album, pulls off a spectacular harnessing of that very same “interconnectedness”, recruiting a digitally assembled choir of the band’s fans.
“Gabe had this idea that these lyrics were talking about trying to make something of this technology, so why didn’t we put our money where our mouths were and see if we can get people to sing along with it.” Thile made a scratch track and sent it out via the band’s website and Twitter. “People sent us in little iPhone memos and garage band tracks of them singing along and we used many hundreds of these, from all over the world.”
The result in Little Lights is both epic and moving, as Thile’s trademark falsetto virtually goes off the scale alongside Witcher’s soaring fiddle and the digitally garnered massed choir shines brightly indeed.
Fans at Southern Fried will have to do their own joining in, although that shouldn’t be a problem, given the energy of the Brothers’ stage show. Asked what audiences in Perth and Lerwick can expect, Thile’s enthusiastic reply is simple, “A very excited band.”