Rock music has a long history of spotlight-stealing performers; individuals with personalities so deafening that they drown out their bandmates’ more subtle tones of life. You’ve known the names of these giants since you discovered KQRS in middle school: Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, and I shouldn’t even have to mention Meat Loaf.
Bluegrass music, on the other hand, has a slightly different history.
With its intricate rhythmic interweavings and close, group harmonies, the very nature of bluegrass is antithetical to this kind of idol worship. Indeed, the only musician to ever truly break out of this trend did so primarily because he also broke out of a million other bluegrass trends. Chris Thile may not be an international hero but he is the definitive king of modern bluegrass.
Thile’s first band, Nickel Creek, is credited with reigniting the latent new grass scene and bringing bluegrass music back to young audiences. Since then, he has only expanded on the breadth of his offerings, bending bluegrass conventions to the point that his newest albums have been declared “genre-proof.”
Jimi Hendrix was incredible but his otherworldly psychedelia might have gone unheralded if it weren’t for Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell’s grounding rhythms. In the same way, Thile’s virtuosic songwriting and plucking would sound strange and bare without the excellence of his current band, the Punch Brothers.
Comprised of fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert, the group is more than just an outlet for Thile’s artistic ambitions. They jam together, write together and commiserate together — they create together.
Every member of the Punch brothers is a renowned musician in his own right. Witcher alone has played with everyone from Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett to The String Cheese Incident, Eldridge is a founding member of The Infamous Stringdusters, and Kowert studied under the legendary Edgar Meyer. Not that he needs any more introduction, but Thile did just finish an entire album with Yo-Yo Ma (quite possibly the greatest cellist who has ever lived).
Their talent is obvious on any of their albums, and even more so in person — they trade solos like jazz greats, dancing over the drumless rhythm section with ease.
Unfortunately, it is that live exuberance that has never quite been captured in recorded material. Their fourth studio album, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” has some brief moments of intensity and drive, especially on the title track and “Hundred Dollars.” For the most part, however, it’s filled with light strummings and intricate softness, sterile as a whitewashed room. Even the Radiohead cover that they save for the end is gentle in its eeriness, lacking the original’s dystopian bite. The Punch Brothers keep their talents in check on record, perhaps afraid that their individual prowess might clash if given too long a leash.
There will be no such reigning in for the Brothers tomorrow night, if previous gigs are any indication. On stage they all seem equal, no matter how hard they shred their string-covered wooden boxes. Thile may be the head of this particular clan, but no king is worth much without his knights.
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