The Punch Brothers: An innovative crew of hot pickers, led by mandolinist Chris Thile
When asked about his memories of Chico, mandolin player Chris Thile (rhymes with “really"), formerly of Nickel Creek fame and now the leader of the Punch Brothers, not only remembered Chico, but also had a clear appreciation for this progressive little college town.
“I have a very distinct memory of one of the first times I went to Chico,” Thile said via phone from Nashville regarding a visit to Bear Hole in Upper Bidwell Park. “We had friends in Chico who took us out to this grotto for beer and snacks, and we went swimming. It was so hot. We dropped off the van and hiked up and swam, and there were these rocks to jump off of.”
And Thile offered more.
“I love to go to the Sierra Nevada Brewery. I’m a fan of good beer, and I feel Sierra Nevada has done America a service.”
Thile’s been to town many times for performances at the Senator Theatre, The Big Room, Laxson Auditorium and Cedar Grove in Bidwell Park, and Chico Performances is bringing him back to Laxson with the Punch Brothers on Feb. 13.
A sage at 27, Thile has played professionally since he was a child, and though he cut his teeth on traditional bluegrass, breathing new life into it with the Nickel Creek trio, the Punch Brothers have kind of burst the piñata of bluegrass and experiment with all of its cascading musical candy by adding varying ingredients of classical and jazz.
“We’ll play straight-up bluegrass, and much of that material works,” Thile said of the group, which features Thile on mandolin and vocals along with guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, bassist Paul Kowert and fiddle player Gabe Witcher. “But defining us is very ambiguous. I think that often the only similarity of the Punch Brothers and bluegrass is the instrumentation. Increasingly that’s less and less of a tangible influence of what we do. It’s so deeply entrenched in our collective musical psyche we’re really not tipping the hat in that direction. It’s just part of us.”
The Punch Brothers could be broadly tagged as a “progressive bluegrass” outfit, but Thile, as many musicians do, decried being labeled. But he has his own astute theory on the subject.
“We’re not consciously trying to be genreless,” he said, “but to me making distinctions between music is sort of tireless and meaningless. Music is harmony, rhythm, melody and form. But [listeners] don’t put time into it; they treat it as a lifestyle, like ‘I’m the sort of person who listens to this.’ It’s like who wears Prada instead of Gucci. And they may be losing an opportunity to interface with other music.”
While there should be plenty of innovative finger picking at the Laxson show, the set could include pieces by Radiohead or The Strokes to go along with selections from the band’s CD, Punch. And there could be all sorts of other surprises, as Thile said some of the diverse artists influencing his psyche of late include improvisational jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, classical composer Gustav Mahler, bluegrass balladeer James King, soul artist D’Angelo and singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
The show will likely include “The Blind Leading the Blind,” a four-movement, 40-minute epic. But Thile, who said the piece is “based on the deterioration and subsequent soul searching after my ill-fated marriage,” said not to expect a mirror copy of what’s on Punch.
“We personalize every performance,” he said. “Commenting musically in the composition makes it more vibrant, which has a positive impact on the show.”
Thile admitted that sometimes he gets “frustrated by what I consider my own incompetence and ineptitude, and cower in the face of great musicians’ accomplishments. Other times it’s amazing and I have the feeling I understand what this piece or lyric is all about. But it’s all a big adventure. It’s a treasure map where ‘X’ marks the next treasure map; there’s no treasure there, just another map.”