High-powered Punch Brothers ready to shake up Mass MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS — For the first one minute and 41 seconds, the song has no words. Noam Pikelny's banjo picking arrives first and offers an ominous undertone. Chris Thile's mandolin and Chris Eldridge's acoustic guitar join him, their combined sounds like chimes in the wind. Gabe Witcher's fiddle and Paul Kowert's upright bass come later and go lower, dark clouds above. At the 1:42 mark, Thile's soft vocals begin, later connecting the tune's sound to a child's perception of his parents' fighting and yearning, "Momma tossing and turning through the coming storm." But the lyrics to "All Ashore" are secondary; Punch Brothers, in its latest album's title track and so many others, delivers its blows instrumentally, a meeting of five musically virtuosic minds.

"You have to find a way for all the different parts to lock up," Eldridge told The Eagle during a telephone interview.

The avant bluegrass band's arrangements rarely land in one genre, conjuring pop, jazz and classical. "All Ashore" is no different. The group has recently been touring behind the 2018 label-defying record that comments on finding peace amid political turmoil. It will stop at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Hunter Center on Saturday night for a special FreshGrass concert. Gabriel Kahane will open.

Last month, the band took home its first Grammy following four previous nominations, winning for best folk album.

"It was wonderful," Eldridge said. "I think we were all genuinely surprised because we were up against Joan Baez in the folk music category."

Punch Brothers has long been a critical darling, but the Grammy offered a different kind of validation for Eldridge.

"This feels like a merit badge because the band's been going on 12 years of hard work," he said.

In 2006, Thile's Grammy Award-winning collaboration with Sara and Sean Watkins, Nickel Creek, was on the verge of breaking up. That year, Thile, Eldridge, Witcher, Pikelny and bassist Greg Garrison recorded "How to Grow a Woman from the Ground" after reflecting on their failed relationships.

"We've constructed this supergroup of sorts for the instrumentalists in my generation — these guys are all at the top of the pile for their respective instruments, and the atmosphere we want to create is like The Band who grew up together and actually lived in a house together. I think they achieved a level of music telepathy that hasn't been matched since and we'd like to get there," Thile told Alexa Hinton of The City Paper.

Rehearsing in Thile's East Village one-bedroom, the group was initially called the How to Grow a Band. By 2008, it had decided on Punch Brothers, releasing "The Blind Leaving the Blind" suite and other songs on "Punch." The band's moniker alludes to Mark Twain's "A Literary Nightmare." In the short story, a man reckons with a jingle he can't shake from his head. ("Punch, brothers! punch with care! / Punch in the presence of the passenjare!") Punch Brothers' tunes were hardly advertising fare, though.

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"Their music is as radical as progressive bluegrass (or newgrass, or new acoustic music) can be, with chord progressions that can veer sideways at any moment, changeable meters and interludes that can hint at hoedowns or turn as contrapuntal and dissonant as chamber music," The New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote of "Antifogmatic," the band's 2010 follow-up to "Punch" and the first that Kowert appeared on.

With that innovation, naturally, comes some disagreements. In 2011, the documentary "How to Grow a Band" captured the tensions between the group's individual and collective visions. But through five studio records, including 2015's "The Phosphorescent Blues," Punch Brothers has refined its collaboration even as its members spend less and less time together, starting families in different parts of the country.

"For a while, we all lived in the same town. We don't anymore," the Nashville-based Eldridge said.

To record "All Ashore," the group gathered at United Sound in Los Angeles, each bringing bits of music to share. Some received crickets; others prompted playing.

"We always write Punch Brothers music collectively," Eldridge said.

For the first time, they self-produced the record.

"Part of the reason we haven't self-produced until now was we weren't quite ready," Eldridge said. "I think we could get caught up in how clever an idea was, that sort of thing."

Thile pens the group's lyrics. The "Live from Here" host will be back at Tanglewood in June, with Eldridge joining him. But first, they will present the project that occupies a "sacred" place in their lives, according to Eldridge.

"This was a coming-of-age group for all of us. We moved into full-on adulthood within this band," he said. "We've given a lot of our lives to it and built it into something we're all deeply proud of."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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