Punch Brothers are one of those acts that help define the dividing line between what is and isn’t bluegrass music. Folks who embrace the oft-denigrated “big tent” philosophy see them as a direct antecedent to what Bill Monroe started nearly 60 years ago, while traditionalists see their music as a deviation, if not an abomination, from the tried and true path.
Clearly, their music reflects a very strong bluegrass influence, and in fact, most of them started out as dedicated grassers. They display all the virtuosity expected from a top bluegrass band, and using the proper instruments – with techniques built directly on what has been handed down from the early pioneers – Chris Thile and his Bros craft modern acoustic-pop music with sincerity and passion.
Their music may sound different from the Original Bluegrass Band, but they have stayed true to Monroe’s string band vision, never once bringing in percussion or outside musicians to add a modern gloss to the product. In their own way, Punch Brothers are as uncompromising and demanding of themselves as ever Big Mon was of his outfit back in the day.
But should you ever doubt where they come from, check this video from a show in Montreal last week. When called back for an encore, the boys approached the edge of the stage to offer an unamplified version of Groundspeed as a tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Watch how banjo man Noam Pikelny kicks the song in true Scruggs fashion, followed by gradually more adventurous solos from the rest of the group, only to come back around again for the classic bass ending.
Noam tells us that they have been doing the song since the sad news was announced earlier this year.
“Groundspeed has been in rotation since Earl’s passing. Quite often in nice sounding concert halls we’ll end the night by doing two acoustic tributes. Groundspeed for Earl, and The Weight dedicated to the memory of Levon Helm.”
The band is currently offering three free live tracks recorded earlier this year in exchange for your email address. Included are a pair of live versions from their current Who’s Feeling Young Now project (New York City, Don’t Get Married Without Me), and one from one of Thile’s solo projects, Song For A Young Queen.
Full details online.