When the five string wizards known collectively as Punch Brothers returned for one last encore on a July Friday night at the Ryman Auditorium, they unplugged their in-ear monitors and stepped to the front of the stage. With no amplification, it seemed likely they’d tear into something loud and bluegrassy, so as to commune with the ghosts of the Grand Ole Opry and to be clearly heard.
Instead they dove into “Familiarity,” a ten-minute, six-bedroom house of a song from the 2015 Phosphorescent Blues album. There were delicate passages that didn’t quite make it audibly to my balcony seat at first, but then an amazing thing happened. The audience all but stopped breathing. Our ears adjusted and opened up like forest animals coming warily out of hiding. We were vividly exposed to the wood and wire instruments and then to the chorales of the hymnlike piece: “God knows we mean it. God help us feel it.”
This spiritual finale closed out an already enthralling, musically extravagant show with something sublime and communal. It was a risky move, but what else has Punch Brothers been for a decade? They launched their recording career with a 40-minute avant-garde song cycle, The Blind Leaving The Blind. They’ve developed a repertoire at least as cerebral as it is catchy. Yet with all the sounds and concepts surging about their heads, Punch Brothers have never reached for an electric instrument, a drum, a synth or a shaker. Just five bluegrass instruments and a universe of imagination.
This particular Ryman show, one of two nights at the hallowed hall, landed on release day of All Ashore, the band’s fifth full length studio album and the first in a busy three years for all five members. Following are audio highlights from an interview taped on the day of the show for a live webcast through The Bluegrass Situation, catching up on what they’ve been doing individually and what came to pass as they reunited.
Mandolinist and lead singer Chris Thile became host of the long running public radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, which changed its name in late 2017 to Live From Here. Besides that standing commitment, Thile recorded an album of classical music by J.S. Bach with bassist Edgar Meyer and Yo Yo Ma and a jazz pop duo album with pianist Brad Mehldau.
Thile said the band approached the first composing and recording in several years together through the frame of a drastically shifted political environment and used extensive band writing sessions and pub hangouts to create something conceptually coherent across a full album.
Noam Pikelny made Universal Favorite in early 2017, his first-ever solo banjo/guitar album as well as his first as a singing songwriter. He also made his debut as a producer, working with songwriter Caitlin Canty on her album Motel Bouquet. He has said that the band’s All Ashore sessions marked a “momentous regathering of the band.” He explains what he meant here.
Chris “Critter” Eldridge developed his musical relationship with jazz crossover guitar star Julian Lage, releasing a second duo album, this one called Mount Royal. Asked whether Punch Brothers specifically try to stay on the cutting edge of string band music, he said he thinks more of it like being community leaders like to share their experience.
Fiddle player Gabe Witcher produced a number of records, including those of bandmaktes Pikelny and Eldridge. He’s also composing larger scale music for video games and arranging orchestral arrangements for MacArthur fellow songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. Here he addresses the process that leads to the band’s intricate, layered compositions.
Bass player Paul Kowert was the quietest of the group on this album release day, but he noted that his band Hawktail just released its first album. It’s a cutting-edge instrumental stringband with fiddler Brittany Haas, guitarist Jordan Tice and mandolinist Dominic Leslie. Kowert also tours with the Dave Rawlings Machine.
Punch Brothers tour the United States heavily until mid September, then hit Europe and the UK in the month of November.