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The Appalachians are frequently noted for their rich cultural heritage, and festivals and celebrations of local crafts, lore, dance, and music are frequent. Many focus on the preservation of the art. The exceptional few take a different approach: reinvention.
The Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series continued with a concert by the Punch Brothers, featuring Chris Thile. For this group, Boone was the first stop on a national tour spanning 18 states and Washington D.C. and promoting the band’s latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? Most of the songs featured on this concert were from this album, but a few older favorites were included as well.
The Punch Brothers are known for their unique, eclectic sound. It is often, though imprecisely, labeled as progressive bluegrass with pop, jazz, and classical influences. What this means, practically speaking, is that the group is capable of evoking Bach, Hindemith, the Beatles, Charlie Parker, and Doc Watson in rapid succession, and sometimes all at once. This kaleidoscopic variety of aesthetics and styles can be more than a little bewildering to the unattuned listener. It is fascinating, however, especially for the bluegrass-inclined music history buff. A mountain university with a strong music program attracts more than a few of those; Farthing Auditorium was packed to the rafters and the applause was enthusiastic.
The numbers principally fell into three wildly different categories. First, there were instrumentals incorporating avant-garde techniques, complex harmonies, and virtuosic solos. Then traditional bluegrass toe-tappers played a significant part as well. Most prominent, however, were both original songs and covers that put the bizarre but refreshing stylistic blend mentioned earlier to good use.
Worth mentioning from the start is the strength of the backup vocals, an often underappreciated element in any band. Both Chris Eldridge and Gabe Witcher complemented Chris Thile effectively, but without losing musical individuality. Paul Kowert’s bass playing deserves a like compliment. Kowert easily navigates the complex solo work demanded in the instrumental pieces, but also knows how to play a primarily supporting role with both personality and taste.
That said, every member of the band displayed a high level of technical talent, and, more importantly, sensitivity to when and how to either support or shine. In addition to bassist Kowert, the rest of the quintet included Eldridge on guitar, Witcher on violin, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and of course Chris Thile jamming on mandolin. Their careful rehearsal and consistent communication was evident throughout the performance. The rhythmic transitions were impossibly tight and kept the audience very much on their toes. Hemiola, complex syncopation, polyrhythm, you name it — this quintet employed it. Transitions were spot on; the band would go from swinging, to straight, and back on a dime without blinking. The lighting was understated but effective, especially with the bare-bones stage.
Some of the highlights included “Hundred Dollars,” “New York City,” “This Girl,” and “Patchwork Girlfriend.” These original songs were characterized by unbounded creativity and synthesis, but sometimes at the sacrifice of unity and coherence of sound. Stretching the limits of sound and style merits applause, but it can be overdone. The instrumentals were more focused, and easily the most challenging but also the most rewarding listening. Providing an opportunity for a little more relaxed toe-tappin’ were the traditional numbers, such as “Rye Whiskey.” “Piney Woods,” a stylistically traditional bluegrass banjo and fiddle duet, provided a welcome relief of texture and of density as well as a more familiar style.
While it is important to keep traditional arts and culture alive, sometimes we forget to foster new and continual growth in different directions. The Punch Brothers have created an art form that looks both backwards and forwards at the same time. No, their music is not for everyone. Everyone, however, should appreciate the ongoing artistic effort to find an intersection between traditional and contemporary, tried-and-true and utterly new. This group has found a way to succeed in that synthesis.