When: Thu., July 16, 8 p.m. 2015
PUNCH BROTHERS | THURSDAY, JULY 16
NC MUSEUM OF ART, RALEIGH—With mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle and double bass, the Punch Brothers certainly look like a bluegrass band. And given its members' past or present associations with Nickel Creek and scores of other acoustic outfits, they've long been championed and promoted by sanctioning institutions such as the International Bluegrass Music Association. But by mixing their string-band roots with classical, jazz, pop and rock influences, they have never actually been a bluegrass band. That's never been more apparent than on the tremendous new The Phosphorescent Blues.
The album opens, for instance, with "Familiarity," a dense, 10-minute number whose introductory mandolin runs yield to choppy rhythms, aggressive instrumental sprints and vocal harmonies that suggest The Beach Boys gone Gregorian chant. They deliver a sparkling version of Debussy's "Passepied" and approach full-frontal pop on "I Blew It Off." "Julep" blooms patiently as a moody meditation on love. During "Between First and A," guitarist Chris Eldridge fills the bridge with funky acoustic licks.
His playing seems to reflect his recent collaborative stint with jazz whiz Julian Lage, a relationship built around what they call "art guitar music." In fact, in the three years since the Punch Brothers' last album, all of the band's pieces have been busy. Chris Thile delivered a solo album of Bach partitas and sonatas, made a duo record with bassist Edgar Meyer and reconvened Nickel Creek. Bassist Paul Kowert toured briefly with Dave Rawlings Machine and another trio. Fiddler Gabe Witcher produced banjo player Noam Pikelny's IBMA Award-winning album, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.
While accepting those awards last October in Raleigh, Pikelny said his time with Punch Brothers had helped him improve his voice as a banjo player. The reverse seems true for the band as a whole: By sharpening their tools on different stones, the Punch Brothers approach the band with a newly acute brilliance. They take bluegrass basics and push themselves to pull liberally from other corners. With The Phosphorescent Blues, then, the Punch Brothers are not at the top of the bluegrass game; they're playing a different game altogether. 8 p.m., $24–$40, 919-715-5923, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, www.ncartmuseum.org. —Allison Hussey