Saturday, February 02, 2013

Punch Bros. to play at Virginia Tech

As the band prepares to play Tech on Wednesday, front man Chris Thile reflects on musical heroes and legacies, creativity and gratitude.

Thile and Herschel Sizemore chat backstage during a benefit concert at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre for Sizemore and his wife. Thile has said that one of the thrills of his youth was playing with Sizemore during a workshop in Roanoke.

The Roanoke Times | File 2012

Thile and Herschel Sizemore chat backstage during a benefit concert at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre for Sizemore and his wife. Thile has said that one of the thrills of his youth was playing with Sizemore during a workshop in Roanoke.

Correction (Feb. 4, 2012: 9:50 a.m.): The Punch Brothers are playing at Virginia Tech Wednesday, Feb. 6. An earlier version of this story had the wrong date in one reference; it has been updated. | Our corrections policy

A year has passed since world-traveling acoustic explorers Punch Brothers passed through Southwest Virginia. It was Feb. 19, 2012, a Sunday, and the band was scheduled to play Jefferson Center.

But before taking the stage for that sold-out show, Punch Brothers and its mandolinist/singer, Chris Thile, had another stop to make.

The band pulled into the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre to play a short set, gratis, for one of Thile's heroes: Roanoke-based, world-class mandolinist Herschel Sizemore. The event was a benefit show for Sizemore, who with his wife, Joyce, had received cancer diagnoses on the same day the year before.

During the set, Thile told the crowd that one of his biggest thrills as a youngster was picking with Sizemore at an instrumental workshop in Roanoke. The boy and the master had played the Sizemore-written instrumental standard, "Rebecca."

As Punch Brothers' schedule brings it back to the region — this time, to Virginia Tech's Burruss auditorium on Feb. 6 — Thile said that his early musical encounter with Sizemore and other such bluegrass giants remained imprinted.

"Getting to play with Herschel back then, as an incredibly impressionable young man, those kinds of experiences are difficult to describe," Thile said earlier this week. "The impact they have on your musical life, they give you a sense of belonging. To play a tune like that, which has become iconic and to actually be able to perform it with the fellow who wrote it, it's difficult to express how formative an experience that can be for a young fellow."

It's an experience he has frequently paid forward. One of today's young bluegrass phenoms, mandolinist Sierra Hull, has said that one of her most important formative experiences in her early playing days was a jam session and hang with Thile at MerleFest.

Such meetings aren't simply about jamming, Thile said. Questions, answers and musical philosophy are part of the mix.

"And I think one of the most useful things for me was learning how open-minded the great musicians that I met were, and what they actually produced themselves was generally just a small facet of their overall musical interest," Thile said. "And so musicians like Sierra that come along, I want to be able to impart that same kind of thing, and just try to impress upon them the importance of a broad outlook and a comprehensive musical vision."

Ready to write

As the years have passed, Thile has incorporated his vision with a list of performers that includes jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves. But he has made his most consistent noise with Punch Brothers, which he formed in 2006 and has become a deeply collaborative effort.

It has made three albums and one EP since then, full of neo-chamber pop with bluegrass, jazz and experimental rock edges. And after an exhausting 2012 of touring behind most recent album "Who's Feeling Young Now?" and EP "Ahoy!," Thile said the band is ready to start writing again.

"We've worked really, really hard this year," he said. "We toured a lot. And roundabout the beginning of fall, middle of fall, everybody got pretty tired. We were out in Europe sort of slogging around, and the gas tank hit empty. No one was coming up with new ideas (laughs). It was stale.

"But it's funny, without any sort of significant amount of time off since then, things have sort of swung back around to where people are coming up with new ideas."

As the band wraps up touring for the time being, he said, "I think we're going to coast right into the upcoming writing period pretty charged up."

Pushing the boundaries

Thile, 31, was not even 10 when he and his friends, siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, started Nickel Creek. The band grew from a precocious bluegrass act to a world-traveling, multigenre force by the end of its run in 2007.

By then, Thile had already recruited another pack of bluegrass music's finest young instrumentalists to play on his solo record, "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground." Guitarist Chris Eldridge (son of Northern Virginia bluegrass juggernaut The Seldom Scene's Ben Eldridge), banjo man Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher were among them. Together, they grew a band, Punch Brothers, that eventually included bassist Paul Kowert.

From the jump of the group's first album, "Punch," this was not a bluegrass act. In the nearly seven years since, the band has continued to push creative and technical limits.

But with last year's releases, listeners can feel more strains of bluegrass seeping in.

It's not that Thile or anyone else in the band quit loving the old-school genre that got them going in the first place. But for players who are into exploration and improvisation, bluegrass could be too restrictive, he said.

"I think we were, certainly I was, frustrated with the constraints that your typical bluegrass fan's listening palette put on your creativity," he said. "I think that anyone who would choose to just listen to one type of music is like someone who says no, I'm only going to eat macaroni and cheese. ... And I've occasionally been guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. So as I get older, you realize that you don't have to take such a polarized view. You don't have to swing quite as hard in the other direction.

"I love bluegrass. I always have. But I don't love it because it's bluegrass. I love it because it's good music. And to me it's huge, highly related to other good music that I hear."

Thile said he always hoped for audiences that understood where he and his bandmates were going. These days, those crowds have apparently found the band.

"This tour has been amazing," he said, "and the crowds that are coming are just like exactly who we always dreamed we could play for."

Certified genius

Last year, Thile received the surprise notification that he had been given a MacArthur Fellowship — popularly known as a "Genius Grant" — which comes with a $500,000 no-strings-attached award. The winners do not know they have been nominated, nor are they supposed to learn who nominated them.

Just before losing the connection with Thile's cellphone (he was on the road), he began to discuss his thoughts on the honor.

"Every dog has his day, and that was mine," he said.

Read more of Thile's response to the grant, plus his plans for the money, at the Huffington Post, via

Punch Brothers

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Burruss Auditorium, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg

How much: $18; VT faculty and staff, $15; VT students, $7; children, $5


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