Punch Brothers at the 9:30 Club

Punch Brothers perform traditional bluegrass at the 9:30 Club in DC. Photo: Punch Brothers

WASHINGTON, February, 27, 2012 —Some bands try to down play their bluegrass sound, constantly misdirecting the audience with touches from other genres, distracting them from where the real root of their sound is anchored. Punch Brothers, on the other hand, fully embrace their bluegrass aesthetic with unapologetic energy. If their two sold out recent shows at DC’s 9:30 Club are any indication, then Punch Brothers have actually pushed bluegrass right into the spotlight of mainstream music.

Bluegrass is still a primarily niche genre. It’s most popular in specific regions of the country rather than nationwide, a fact that doesn’t quite fit in with its slowly increasing mainstream success. Yet Punch Brothers, a bluegrass-rooted band from Brooklyn, has managed in their seven years of existence to cross over to the mainstream for the most part.

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Usually for a band from a relatively niche market to make this kind of crossover, it presentation needs to be augmented by adding elements of a more popular genre to the baseline.  An alternative is to take hold of the niche genre and making it sound more pop-oriented. In essence, they’d just be making their sound more appealing to a broader audience who might not be geared towards their original influences.

Punch Brothers go into the opposite direction. They sink deeper and deeper into bluegrass as their set progresses. When they do branch outside the genre, it isn’t in a direction that would normally draw in a traditionally mainstream audience. Yet, people in the crowd eat up what they’re playing anyway, even if it might not be something they would generally listen to.

Bluegrass has always had an element of improvisation to it. The genre’s reliance on stringed instruments and the necessity to play this music relatively fast and loose leads almost inevitably toward improvisation. To their credit, Punch Brothers don’t shy away from improvisation during their set, deciding to go off on musical tangents during several of their songs. Those moments actually seem to be built into their songs, as the structure of each seems to embed varying degrees of elasticity.

The Brothers’ spontaneity is an interesting touch, even more so because—despite their improv excursion—the band never quite loses its focus on any given song. It may feel counterintuitive to say the songs are simultaneously improvisatory and tightly structured, but that’s exactly what the Punch Brothers accomplish.

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Of course this isn’t to say Punch Brothers is just a straight up bluegrass band, either. It’s just that when they do incorporate elements of other genres into their sound, it’s not standard operating procedure for a band of their status.

One of the things the band is known for – especially off their first album Punch – is how they lean towards classical arrangements during their songs. This is where the marriage of structure and improvisation comes in. Their first album has several songs that run in excess of 8 minutes, which they are inclined to play live – and did at the 9:30 Club – because they’re quite haunting and typical of the band’s overall statement.  Since the arrangement is that way too, the songs are written to veer off into unknown territory from time to time. The music is arranged to feel spontaneous without that actually being so, making those songs all the more interesting.

This element isn’t present in later albums, but that’s not the case when they play their compositions live. Whether this is deliberate or not to make their set feel more coherent as a whole, the songs that don’t fall into the feel of their first album will often take on a similar feel when performed live. In this way, their entire set has an interconnected feel to it, uniting roughly equal parts of structure and improvisation without a noticeable difference between the two.

Punch Brothers are a prime example of a band that gains popularity while remaining uncompromisingly true to their roots. They managed to cross over without ever veering away even slightly from their bluegrass roots. Their set felt different and interesting during their 9:30 Club performance. But not a moment of it felt like it would’ve been out of place at a festival in West Virginia, southern Virginia, or Kentucky.

View the Punch Brothers future shows here.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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