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The Punch Brothers are bringing bluegrass back

Posted by Alex Pearlman  February 27, 2012 05:59 PM

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punch brothers somerville theatre.jpgBy Mike Flanagan

When you consider the cultural significance and historically accurate definition of bluegrass, it’s hard to let a group of 30-somethings get away with cashing in on it. The genre, like any other, developed around the concerns and logistical limitations of the culture that created it. It was a folk music, in other words, and its sole purpose was to communicate a multitude of ideas that pervaded the culture.

Somewhere along the way, bluegrass musicians became incredibly proficient and developed techniques that have been passed between dozens of generations. Today, bluegrass is more of an exercise for modern-day musicians to become well-rounded than a genuine art. Few, if any, of the original concerns, limitations, and ideas are relevant in 2012. But Chris Thile and his Punch Brothers have made themselves the exception by staying true to the central purpose, as they proved Friday night in Somerville’s intimate and eponymous theater.

The band's interpretations of contemporary pop songs reflect the concerns of their culture in the same way and for the same reasons their anonymous bluegrass heroes did with their traditional pieces. “Kid A” -- yes, the Radiohead song -- was one of the night’s many highlights, and the Punch Brothers’ take on it emits the same uncomfortable euphoria as the original (in fact, it’s virtually a note-for-note cover, weird computer noises and all). It doesn't hurt that the band's members are all virtuosic musicians in the purest sense of the often haphazardly issued term. The quintet’s skill and chemistry bleeds through its originals, especially off the newest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which Thile and banjo master Noam Pikelny mentioned enough times that it became a running joke throughout the night.

The ensemble’s academic musical background makes their performances unspeakably impressive, and it never comes at the expense of the shared human experience most often sought at rock concerts. Thile is an avid lover of pop music, having covered everything from Radiohead to Pavement, and his connection to that unique energy is apparent in his originals. That’s how the Punch Brothers got the devoted crowd to relate so rabidly to their songs: They're a bluegrass band, for sure, but they played to a markedly non-bluegrass crowd and commanded the same kind of attention that one might imagine the E Street Band would command in a similarly cozy venue.

At certain points throughout the band’s set, in fact, Thile appeared to forget that his mandolin was not an electric guitar. His three-minute solo in the middle of the set was Malkmus-esque, rife with intentionally botched notes and dissonant licks. A crowd of bluegrass historians would have scoffed at Thile’s brash abomination of the centuries-old genre.

Then again, bluegrass historians might not know much about contemporary American culture. Perhaps they should have been at the Somerville Theater on Friday night.

Photo by Ellie Botelho

About Mike -- I graduated with a degree in journalism from Emerson College in December. I've done investigative work for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and covered beats in Bridgewater and Dorchester, but my passion is music. When I'm not blurring the line between obsession and enjoyment while listening to Pavement or Bruce Springsteen, I'm punching walls over the Celtics. Twitter: @mikeflanagan2.

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