Punch Brothers Make Bluegrass Fun, Relatable for a New Generation

Oliver Levine

When the Punch Brothers took the stage of Finney Chapel last Saturday they didn’t hold anything back. The progressive bluegrass group, fronted by Chris Thile and apparently backed by the bluegrass gods themselves, played to an audience as energetic as it gets.

The set was long enough to give the band time to cover the highlights from all three of its albums without dragging on and losing the audience’s attention. The group paid its tribute to the Band’s Levon Helm, who died in April of this past year, and Earl Scruggs, who died in March. The show’s focus, however, was on the Punch Brothers’s most recent album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? released back in February of 2012. The new album addresses living in New York City, divorce and the ice-cold heart of the city girl. In “This Girl,” Thile sings of praying for a girl to love him, while in “Hundred Dollars” fiddler Gabe Witcher sings of city girls being all the same. It’s fun to watch these guys play off each other, musically and personally.

The guitarist, Chris Eldridge, OC’ 04, was happy to be back. He was so happy to be reconnecting with his roots, in fact, that he went on to sing “Through the Bottom of the Glass”, written by a member of his father’s band, The Seldom Scene, something that he would never normally do at a Punch Brothers show. Gently ribbing his bandmate’s nostalgia, banjoist Noam Pikelny chuckled, “Do I smell an honorary degree?”

It’s not just the immense talent of the players that makes a Punch Brothers show so enjoyable, it’s the fun they have on stage. The band shared laughs with the crowd and inside jokes with each other. The show consistently had audience members dancing and swaying for over an hour and a half, never failing to keep people involved and attentive. By 9:30 p.m. the band had a group of nearly twenty girls and boys swing dancing next to the stage. “What a crowd!” Thile kept repeating.

The Punch Brothers are at the top of the bluegrass game today because of enthusiasm like this. At times their music can be indie rock and at times strays closer to classical music, but it always pays its debt to strong roots in traditional bluegrass. But the highlight of the show may have been at the end, when the Punch Brothers stepped out in front of their mics and played “Ophelia” acoustically. “It does sound pretty good in here,” Thile joked, before the Punch Brothers walked off stage to a standing ovation.