That the string-music renegades known as Punch Brothers would be far removed from traditional bluegrass was a given before the band even had a name.
Convening in New York so that mandolinist Chris Thile could have an ensemble to perform his four-movement string piece The Blind Leaving the Blind, the resulting unit became less a vehicle for Thile in his post-Nickel Creek career and more a unified band spirit that allowed the newly christened Punch Brothers to draw from alt-pop, classical, rock and, yes, bluegrass.
So it was curious that David Letterman introduced it as a bluegrass band from Nashville when Punch Brothers appeared on the Late Show earlier this month. Even on its home turf, it seems, the musical invention of Punch Brothers has some stereotypes to contend with.
"Yeah, it was funny," said guitarist Chris Eldridge. "We noticed when we were introduced that the cue cards didn't say anything about Nashville. I think Dave was just kind of freestyling. But that's alright."
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The Punch crew can count Letterman among a growing number of supporters for a string-music sound that is scholarly, playful and unclassifiable. Among other pals is another well- connected New Yorker, Paul Simon, who invited Punch Brothers to open a series of concert dates for him last fall. The group's fiddler, Gabe Witcher, also was featured on Simon's excellent 2011 album So Beautiful or So What.
"That was so incredible," Eldridge said. "Everybody, whether they realize it or not, knows Paul Simon's music. I was born in 1982, so his Graceland album was kind of ubiquitous when I was a kid. To see him at 70 commanding an audience as he does and becoming so engaged with his band was really, really inspiring."
But inspiration for the multidirectional string music of Punch Brothers seems to come from almost anywhere. The band's third and newest album, Who's Feeling Young Now?, opens with an alert dervish titled Movement and Location. It morphs from a rugged bluegrass rhythm into an almost minimalist melodic sweep accented by jazzlike call-and-response between banjoist Noam Pikelny and bassist Paul Kowert before vocals from Thile sail into the stratosphere in almost Beach Boys-like fashion.
"Movement and Location was the most organic tune on the whole record," Eldridge said. "We wrote the music for that in about 15 minutes. Thile had this mandolin rhythm that he didn't think was very good. He was like, 'No. Nothing's happening with that. It's too weird. It's too esoteric for the band.' But I came up with a guitar solo. Then Noam started playing these banjo rolls. It was a song that completely wrote itself."
At the other end of the album's vast stylistic spectrum is a cover of the Radiohead classic Kid A. The Punch Brothers have been covering Radiohead tunes for years (Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box was featured as an encore at the band's October 2009 concert at Natasha's Bistro & Bar in Lexington). But Kid A is distinctive because, with the help of producer/engineer Jacquire King, who has worked on recordings by Tom Waits, Kings of Leon and Modest Mouse, among others, the band mimics some of Radiohead's pops, static and overall electronic ambience on acoustic instruments.
"One thing we definitely spent a lot of time doing when we moved to New York a few years ago was learning other bands' material. I don't mean learning covers, but really trying to see how these songs worked," Eldridge said. " Radiohead was a big inspiration, so we basically learned the parts to their songs verbatim and then figured out which of the instruments in our band could occupy the roles of the instruments in their band. It was surprising to me how little we had to contrive the electronic stuff.
"That's been true for classical music, too. We worked up Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto as a string piece. It's a work strongly associated with a certain tradition and sound. But I don't think it really matters what the medium is. As long as the music is great, the beauty of it will come through no matter what you play it on."
Ultimately, what sells the music of Punch Brothers perhaps more than their technical command, compositional strength or interpretive skill is their band spirit. It beams during performances. The camaraderie that took these bluegrass pickers to New York to redefine the repertoire for what many might view as a bluegrass group — even one from Nashville — continues to forge a bond that is brotherly.
"When we first started this band, I think we all felt we had discovered our musical soulmates," Eldridge said. "It continues to be a wonderful thing to know these guys as musicians and as friends."