Blend of bluegrass Evolution continues for Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers

Returning to Spoleto Festival USA, the Punch Brothers bring their blend of bluegrass and classical styles to TD Arena for one night.

The Punch Brothers previously played at Spoleto in 2009, and guitarist Chris Eldridge said the band is looking forward to returning to the city.

“We really love Spoleto, it’s a great time. I think ... that might have been the biggest show we played as the headliners at the time,” said Eldridge.

The band boasts major talent: Mandolin player Chris Thile is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, and he and bassist Paul Kowert are disciples of legendary bassist Edgar Meyer. Banjo player Noam Pikelny is a Steve Martin Prize winner. Chris Eldridge is an accomplished guitarist and founding member of The Infamous Stringdusters. Fiddle player Gabe Witcher is an in-demand session player.

The Punch Brothers formed in 2006 after Thile left his previous band, Nickel Creek.

It was around this time that Thile wrote “The Blind Leading the Blind,” an ambitious 40-minute suite in four movements performed at Carnegie Hall the following year and at Spoleto in 2009.

The band’s debut album, “Punch,” was released in 2007. Then came “Antifogmatic” in 2010 and “Who’s Feeling Young Now” in 2012.

Classifying Punch Brothers as a bluegrass group is misleading. While they indeed play bluegrass, they also bring in classical, pop and rock sensibilities.

Neil Rosenberg, author of the book “Bluegrass: A History” explained the genre as one that always has been evolving, and the Punch Brothers as one of the latest iterations of this evolution.

“Bluegrass has always been a progressive music,” Rosenberg said. “The early pioneers, like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, were trying to create something distinctive of their own.”

The Punch Brothers, Rosenberg said, embrace hybridization.

“They draw from a lot of other musical styles and somehow fit them into a way of playing that relates to bluegrass. There aren’t many bands that can play a classical string quartet on their instruments and make it sound really good.”

While the band tends to be classified as bluegrass, or “newgrass,” classification doesn’t really matter, Rosenberg said.

“What is really nice about their music is it appeals to people who don’t really know much about what traditional bluegrass is or isn’t,” he said. “I think that’s good, and I think that’s what they have to do to be really successful in music, which is what they are. As far as what you call it, my sense is they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that.”

Nic Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.