Punch Brothers to explore bluegrass and beyond at Green Music Center concert

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If You Go

When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 23

Where: Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $25 to $75, discounts for SSU students and children

Information: 866-9550-6040, tickets@sonoma.edu, gmc.sonoma.edu

When banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny was invited about 12 years ago to join the bluegrass-inspired band that became the Punch Brothers, he expected to make one album and call it a day.

But the collaboration, which included mandolin player Chris Thile, was so successful the band decided to keep going.

In a phone interview with the Press Democrat, Pikelny said that nowadays, the band is “always chasing a musical idea or a texture or a story or an emotion.”

While in its early days, he said, Punch Brothers emphasized its technical firepower, broadcasting that “we’re this explosive instrumental group.” Now, he said, “We’re interested in making music that appeals to the head and the heart.”

The Punch Brothers appear at SSU’s Green Music Center on Aug. 23, showcasing their latest album, “All Ashore,” which came out last month on Nonesuch Records. Seven of the nine songs have vocals, and two are acoustic compositions.

Back in 2006, when their debut album came out, none of the Punch Brothers was very well known.

But a couple of years ago Thile became host of the radio show then known as “A Prairie Home Companion.” The show, formerly hosted by Garrison Keillor, is now called “Live From Here.”

On the band’s website, Thile says the new album is “a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in the present political climate.”

The result is magnificent. On “All Ashore,” the band’s talent shines through, and there’s not a trace of indulgence. As accomplished as each musician is, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

Which is something Pikelny, who won the 2010 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass, and his mates recognized as soon as the Punch Brothers got together.

The collaboration – Thile and Pikelny are joined by guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and violinist Gabe Witcher — was so rewarding that after the first album they felt they were just “scratching the surface.”

When the band reconvened in Nashville last year, it was against a different backdrop.

“We agreed that we can’t make this record as if everything is normal in the world right now,” Pikelny said. “It’s not normal — it would be dereliction of duty to make a record without there being any acknowledgment that these are crazy times that we’re living in.”

While the political climate colored the music, the band didn’t make the album with any sort of agenda, he said.

“We always just shape the musical idea or a lyrical idea and see it through without any rules as far as what this band can do or what this band doesn’t do,” he said. “If it sounds good, it is good – that’s been our rule.”

Though inspired by bluegrass legends such as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, the Punch Brothers don’t see themselves as a bluegrass band.

“Bluegrass is something that we really hold dear. We cut our teeth on that music, and it’s still, to me, some of the most righteous music that’s ever been performed and recorded by human beings,” Pikelny said.

The Punch Brothers’ sound is unique and defies easy categorization. Luminous instrumentals, such as “Three Dots and a Dash,” named for a tiki drink, reveal the band’s ingenuity.

If You Go

When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 23

Where: Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $25 to $75, discounts for SSU students and children

Information: 866-9550-6040, tickets@sonoma.edu, gmc.sonoma.edu

“There is an element of escapism of Tiki culture that is especially poignant right now,” Pikelny said. “Tiki culture arose out of World War II, an exoticism that’s charming and appealing. So those songs are a nod to that.”

“Instrumental music is a protest in and of itself,” he added. “To put together a piece of original instrumental music right now and play it, I feel is a protest against the homogenization and the plasticization of culture.”

After working with legendary producers such as T Bone Burnett, the Punch Brothers chose to produce “All Ashore” themselves.

“I think it was the right call,” Pikelny said. “If this were the first record that we ever made with each other, I don’t think self-producing would have been the right call.”

Some bands record for a few days then leave it to a producer shape the album, “but that’s not how we make records,” he said.

“We’re really trying to capture performances, so we’ve all tried to be mindful how the producers we’ve worked with have gotten the best results with us,” he added.

“We know this music as well as anybody so we thought we’d give it (self-producing) a shot this time.”

Sometimes the members disagree about a concept, but Pikelny says that challenging one another in a supportive band leads to better music.

“One of the reasons I think that Punch Brothers is thriving and that there’s no end in sight is everybody has projects outside of the band,” Pikelny said. “Punch Brothers is not our only avenue for our musical careers, so that’s liberating.”

Pikelny’s most recent solo album is 2017’s “Universal Favorite.”

Each band member brings fresh sources of inspiration back to Punch Brothers after every hiatus, he said. “It has allowed for a much greater sense of confidence when people come back, more ideas and more tunes and more input.”

The process has “become more collaborative as the years go by because everybody is getting all this experience outside the band,” he said.

Punch Brothers has become “a lifetime band for all of us.”

Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat, www.michaelshapiro.net

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