The Punch Brothers, who perform next Thursday night at the Napa Valley Opera House, look for all the world like a traditional bluegrass band: Five young men, clean cut, nicely dressed, wielding banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass.
Then they start to play and, well, what do you call this music?
The band’s promotional material says that the title song on their latest album, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” sounds like “hard-charging string band punk rock.” Those words are not commonly found together in the same sentence. Another attempt to describe this band’s music landed on “Americana country-classical chamber music.” Does that help?
The Punch Brothers are genre busters, taking traditional instruments from an earlier time and playing string band music that spills into classical, jazz, even rock. Like two other acoustic string virtuosos who appeared earlier this year at the Opera House — Jake Shimabukuro and Bela Fleck—the standard repertoire of their instruments is only a point of departure for their musical creativity.
The focal point of this band is Chris Thile, who sings lead and, according to some, plays mandolin better than anyone in the world. Thile was a child prodigy, winning the national mandolin championship at age 12. A former member of Nickel Creek, he is a prolific composer, a 2012 MacArthur fellowship winner, and a physical dynamo who brings rock ‘n roll energy and attitude to live performances.
Gabe Witcher has been the band’s fiddle player since its inception in 2006. Like Thile, he is a Southern Californian who began playing when he was 5 years old. Witcher is a sought-after session musician who has played and recorded with an array of well-known artists, including Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Douglas and Emmylou Harris.
The other members include banjoist Noam Pikelny, formerly of Leftover Salmon and the John Cowan Band,and guitarist Chris Eldridge. A founding member of the bluegrass band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Eldridge is the son of Ben Eldridge, the long-time banjo player of Seldom Scene. The only non-charter member of Punch Brothers is bassist Paul Kowert, who joined in 2008. Kowert had been a student of the famed multi-genre bassist Edgar Meyer.
The band’s hallmark may be its inventiveness across conventional boundaries, but alongside that is its reputation for dazzling instrumental virtuosity. Eldridge spoke earlier this year about the band’s musicianship. “It’s incredible,” he said. “Being in this band really is my childhood dream come true, to be in a band of people my own age, who are of like mind and totally brilliant.
“Thile is obviously an enormous talent and is as good as anyone out there,” he added. “He may be our merry crazy leader, but all the guys in the band I completely look up to. They’re all among my favorite musicians in the world. To get to play in a band with four guys like that is utterly inspiring. There’s not a night that goes by where Noam doesn’t play something that drops everybody’s jaw on the floor. The sense of surprise and amazement never goes away and I’m very grateful to get to be in the middle of that all the time.”
The Milk Carton Kids will open the show.