The Bowery Ballroom
Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers

Willie Watson

Sun, December 29, 2013

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

The Bowery Ballroom

New York, NY

This event is 18 and over

3 day tickets available for $125

Punch Brothers
Punch Brothers
Punch Brothers
Who’s Feeling Young Now?
By Michael Hill

The title of the third Punch Brothers disc for Nonesuch, borrowed from one of their new songs, is more an exhortation than a taunt. Who’s Feeling Young Now?, produced and engineered by Jacquire King, contains some of the most exhilaratingly direct, sonically daring performances the group has ever recorded. As the five members, ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 30s, have matured together on the road and in the studio, their approach to writing and performing has, conversely, become looser, simpler, and, in a sense, more unaffectedly youthful. In fact, the title song—featuring rumbling bass, skittering violin, and wailing multi-tracked vocals—sounds like hard-charging string-band punk rock. Opening track “Movement and Location” feels like Steve Reich–inspired indie rock, with rhythmically pulsing guitar, bass, and banjo lines and the same flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants spirit. It came together over a matter of minutes in mandolinist/singer Chris Thile’s living room. At this point, virtuosity is a given among these already prodigious players; the operative word for Who’s Feeling Young Now? is camaraderie.

“I think we’re a lot more comfortable now playing to our strengths and our bluegrass roots,” says guitarist Chris Eldridge. “We kind of came around to a place where that was something we were just as willing to present to the world—it’s obviously part of who we are, always has been—but I feel we’ve been a little reticent, as if playing a simple bluegrass song wasn’t enough. We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable in our skin.”

In 2006, former Nickel Creek member Thile instigated the collaboration that evolved into Punch Brothers when he recruited Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher to back him on a solo album, How to Grow a Woman; bassist Paul Kowert joined the band three years later. They officially became Punch Brothers, releasing a debut album, Punch, on Nonesuch in 2008. Since then, says Thile, “Punch Brothers has gradually evolved from a band that existed to present the ideas of one guy into a band presenting the unified idea of five guys. I had a very clear vision for The Blind Leaving the Blind and I’m very proud how that turned out, but the reason to put yourself in this kind of situation is to have the opportunity to present a real sense of community to other people. When there are five dudes up there doing something as a unit that encourages people to participate, that’s where Punch Brothers is exhibiting a lot of growth. We can actually bring a sense of real musical camaraderie, creative camaraderie, to people who come to our shows and those who listen to the records.”

Kowert, who joined the group just before the 2010 sophomore disc, Antifogmatic, concurs: “We hit our stride a little more on Who’s Feeling Young Now?, finding our places and our parts a little faster. We were basically playing better as an ensemble. Part of that has to do with the writing we did beforehand, part of that is just performing together longer, being on the road for a longer time.”

The quintet was able literally to see how far they’d come when they gathered in mid-2010 to review material, write new tunes, and rehearse for the upcoming sessions, returning to the same apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village where they’d first convened to tackle The Blind Leaving the Blind. As Pikelny explains, “Thile had moved to Brooklyn for two or three years but he was jones-ing for Manhattan again. He’s a creature of habit, so what does he do? He moves back into the exact same building and is in the unit right above the old one, where we have all these memories of just killing ourselves trying to learn The Blind Leaving the Blind, sleeping on the floor, being woken up by trucks at five in the morning. When we went back there, it was like being in a dream state for the first few hours; it didn’t seem possible, to be back in the building where we first looked at each other and said we wanted to do this. Five years later, we’re in practically that same room, working on our new record. With all that’s happened to the band, it felt quite triumphant. It’s a vindication in some ways that we’ve made this work. And now, instead of sleeping on floors, everyone lives in New York and could go back to their own apartments.”

Joining them at Chris’s new pad was King, a veteran of productions with Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon, and Josh Ritter. King helped to oversee the writing, arranging, and song selection He also nudged tunes like “Movement and Location” to fruition, urging the band to reconsider an odd mandolin fragment that Thile had previously shown them. With King’s encouragement, a new song was quickly constructed around it and that set the tone for what was to come. As Eldridge recalls, “The parts all just happened immediately, with a lot of ease. And that’s what a lot of the record ended up being like. There are obviously songs that are pretty rigorous, that we definitely put through the paces, kind of the way we always have. But ‘Movement and Location’ encapsulated the vibe we were trying to live with for this record, capturing a lot more of what we do well in a natural way.”

In October, Punch Brothers arrived at Blackbird Studio, King’s home base in Nashville. Recounts Witcher, “Blackbird has the greatest selection of microphones in North America, something crazy like that. For the whole first day, all we did was test microphones. By the end of the day Jacquire had a huge list of what mics sounded good on what instruments, got a general idea of what set-up we were going to record in, got everything up and running, and by the next day we went in and got going. It was a really fluid process. We ended up recording everything through amps as well, which was pretty tricky: to get a completely acoustic sound and an electric sound coming from the same source and blend it in a believable way. We just built it little by little; maybe the mandolin part is very natural on this one, but the fiddle has some delay on it and the bass has a little bit of distortion to add some punch.”

“We wanted someone who would approach the sound of this record as open-mindedly as we approach our instrumentation,” Thile adds. “We have a mandolin, bass, guitar, violin, banjo—and that’s the only limitation, the only thing we were not changing. We weren’t about to add drums or electric guitar, but everything else was open for intense re-arrangement.”

Thile was clearly open to the concept of radical re-arrangement when it came to his own role, too. Though his mandolin playing was often the lead instrument in Punch Brothers’ earlier work, he relinquished solo-ing duties this time around to Pikelny on banjo and Witcher on violin. Quips Witcher, admiringly, “To a lot of people, Chris Thile is the greatest mandolin player alive, and to have him almost exclusively be part of the rhythm section—he’s never made a record like that. It wasn’t a conscious effort, it was about the songs.” Thile, however, continues to handle the bulk of the lead vocals and lyric-composing chores, though he co-wrote with Josh Ritter two particularly erudite breakup/revenge songs, “New York City” and “Hundred Dollars.” (Witcher sings lead on the latter.) Bemoans Thile, “I’ve tried to limit the ‘relationship’ writing, but to no avail. When I sit down to think about what I want to write about, that’s what tends to come out.”

The band also included two covers, both of them instrumentals, on Who’s Feeling Young Now?. “Flippen” comes from the Swedish band Väsen, with whom Punch Brothers played at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The other is an interpretation of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” well known already to fans who’ve attended Punch Brothers’ free-wheeling p-Bingo shows in New York City. As Thile notes, “I like the irony that the cover from the famous band is the most abstract thing on the record.”

Each of the individual musicians crammed plenty of solo work and/or other collaborations in between Punch Brothers commitments. Pikelny released a second solo disc, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, produced by Witcher. Eldridge joined Pikelny on his record and, along with Witcher, on his tour; Kowert has been playing live dates in guitarist Jordan Tice’s trio with hammer dulcimer player Simon Chrisman, with which he released the album The Secret History. The peripatetic Thile recorded a Grammy–nominated duo set with Brooklyn guitar savant Michael Daves, Sleep with One Eye Open; released The Goat Rodeo Sessions, with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan; and performed live in London with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.

“Every little side project that we’ve done has helped us come back to Punch Brothers with new ideas, new energy, and a new sense of confidence—a righteous need to create stuff,” concludes Eldridge. “All of these things are fuel, they’re rejuvenating.”
Willie Watson
Willie Watson
Looking like a man from leaner and meaner times, Willie Watson steps on stage with a quiet gravitas. But, when he opens his mouth and lets out that high lonesome vocal, you can hear him loud and clear.

His debut solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, was produced by David Rawlings at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio he co-owns with associate producer Gillian Welch in Nashville, TN, over the course of a pair of two-day sessions, for their own Acony Records label. The album spans ten songs from the American folk songbook ranging from standards like “Midnight Special,” “Mexican Cowboy” and Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues” to the more obscure, like Memphis Slim’s 12-bar blues, “Mother Earth,” Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers’ “Bring it With You When You Come,” Land Norris’ double-entendre kids chant, “Kitty Puss” and St. Louis bluesman Charley Jordan’s sing-song “Keep It Clean.” Like the music, Willie can be murderous, bawdy or lustful, sometimes in the course of a single song, with a sly sense of humor that cuts to the quick. He counters a masterful bravado with the tragic fragility of one who has been wounded. “There’s a lot of weight in the way Willie performs,” says Rawlings, longtime friend and producer of Watson’s previous band, Old Crow Medicine Show. “He’s had some tragedy in his life, which has informed his art. There’s an emotional edge to what he does because of who he is as a human being. Willie is the only one of his generation who can make me forget these songs were ever sung before.”

Born in Watkins Glen, N.Y. – best-known for its race track and the rock festival of the same name which took place there, featuring the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and The Band – Watson grew up listening to his father’s basement record collection, including Bob Dylan and Neil Young, before stumbling on a Leadbelly album at the age of 12. Combined with having heard plenty of local string bands – featuring old-time banjo and fiddle – Willie experienced an epiphany.

“As soon as I heard that record,” he recalls, “I was hooked.”

With a voice that could quaver in the operatic style of his favorite, Roy Orbison, Willie went on to discover North Carolina Appalachian fiddle and banjo players Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, who played songs like “Cripple Creek,” “Sugar Hill” and “John Brown’s Dream” on a compilation cassette of “round peak style” music. He began to unearth Folkways albums, including the label’s groundbreaking 1952 Harry Smith compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music, which helped kick-start the ‘60s folk revival lovingly captured in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He discovered like-minded souls in Old Crow Medicine Show.

“When we started that band, I found people that were cut from the same musical cloth,” he says. “They were my age, into the same thing, going down a similar road. We started sharing our influences, trading records and playing together.”

A few years down that road, Watson’s work with Old Crow is already a large part of the reason that banjo and guitar driven music is heard everywhere in the air these days. On Folk Singer, we find Willie defending his musical turf. A true solo album in every sense, Watson is now center-stage, armed with an acoustic guitar, banjo and the occasional mouth harp. Indeed, hearing Watson’s skillful and subtle banjo and guitar accompaniments and soaring vocals unadorned for the first time is a revelation.

“Part of me always toyed with this idea of going it alone,” he explains. “I had to relearn some things, how to fill out all that space.” Watson takes the skeletons of these songs and breathes his own life into them, on stage and on record.
Venue Information:
The Bowery Ballroom
6 Delancey St
New York, NY, 10002
http://www.boweryballroom.com/