You didn’t have to like bluegrass to become a fan of squeaky-clean, apple pie-and-honor roll trio Nickel Creek. Back in the day (most of the ‘90s) siblings Sean and Sara Watkins (guitar and fiddle, respectively) and mandolin player Chris Thile — all just teens at the peak of Nickel Creek fame — put a charmingly rootsy spin on pop tunes (and, likewise, a pop spin on roots tunes). All three members now have solo careers though it’s virtuoso Thile, with his wild hair and wild eyes and pseudo bad-boy turn a few years back and (most importantly) ability to play anything from bluegrass to jazz who is the one to watch.
You don’t have to be a Nickel Creek fan to get the edgy/experimental, compelling/challenging, hooky/intellectual brand of contemporary music crafted by Thile’s current project, Punch Brothers. “Collecting five singular abilities and viewpoints into one musical force, Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile have established their place among the most dynamic and talented presences across the full range of contemporary music-making,” says a press release. “As performing and recording artists, composers and interpreters, technicians and stylists, they continue to push the boundaries of possibility while maintaining an unerring devotion to the basic audience experience.”
From the band’s bio: “Punch Brothers first came together, though nameless at the time, for the making of the 2006 album How to Grow A Woman from the Ground, which earned them a Grammy nomination for the song ‘The Eleventh Reel’ and contains an eclectic mix of covers and original songs. Following that experience, the band began touring and eventually adopted the name Punch Brothers (from the Mark Twain story ‘Punch, Brothers, Punch!’) before releasing their second album, Punch, on Nonesuch in 2008. Punch comprises music written collectively by Punch Brothers alongside Thile’s The Blind Leaving the Blind, a 40-minute quintet that was premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and performed across the US and UK.” They released Antifogmatic this past June.
In fact, Thile is not the only star in the band. Here the rest of the bios:
“Although initially drawn to the electric guitar, by his mid-teens Chris Eldridge had developed a deep love for acoustic music, thanks in part to his father, a banjo player and founding member of the seminal bluegrass group The Seldom Scene. Eldridge later gained in-depth exposure to a variety of different musical styles while studying at Oberlin Conservatory, where he earned a degree in Music Performance in 2004. During his time at Oberlin, Eldridge studied with legendary guitarist Tony Rice. Before joining Punch Brothers, he was a founding member of the critically acclaimed bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters.
“Paul Kowert is from Madison, WI and graduated from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. As a classical musician Paul has performed with various orchestras as a soloist and as a section member, most recently playing in the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Switzerland in the summer of 2008. He was one of the performers at Edgar Meyer’s Carnegie Hall workshop in 2006, and since then has appeared in concert with Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings, Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, Alex and Tatiana Hargreaves, Futureman’s Black Mozart Ensemble, Jordan Tice, Brittany Haas, and Jeremy Kittel. Paul can be heard as a member of the “Big Trio” with mandolinist Mike Marshall and violinist Alex Hargreaves, a group that released its first album in spring 2009.
“Noam Pikelny (born Noam Pikelny) hails from Chicago, IL where he picked up the banjo at the age of 8. He studied old-time and bluegrass banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Throughout high school, he played all over Illinois and Indiana with several traditional bluegrass bands, who occasionally required him to wear a uniform. Noam studied music theory at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. In 2002, he became the principal banjoist with the award-winning Colorado ensemble Leftover Salmon. His debut solo record, In the Maze, was released on Compass Records, and though it did not have much success on the billboard charts, it made a splash in the world of postmodern progressive three-finger style five-string banjo. He relocated to Nashville, TN in 2006 to play with New Grass Revival bassist and vocalist John Cowan. He starting performing and recording with mandolinist, fellow Cubs fan, spiritual advisor, and life coach Chris Thile in the fall of 2005. Noam relocated to Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2008.
“Gabe Witcher began his musical training at age five, learning classical violin and bluegrass fiddle simultaneously. By age six he was performing professionally with his father in the bluegrass band The Witcher Brothers; over the next decade, he gained renown as both a member of that group and as a multiple winner on the California competition circuit. In 1994, Witcher was recruited by veteran musician Herb Pedersen to fill the shoes of threetime national fiddle champion Byron Berline in the group The Laurel Canyon Ramblers. By age 17, Witcher was recording for heavyweights such as Randy Newman, Bernie Taupin, and producer Don Was. He has since contributed to more than 300 records and countless movie and television scores, including 2006 Oscar winner Brokeback Mountain. Over the last five years, he has solidified his place at the forefront of the progressive acoustic music scene by playing with 12-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas.”