Punch Brothers are contenders on Dave Matthews undercard

Punch Brothers, who will open Saturday's concert at the Wells Fargo Center, are led by mandolinist Chris Thile (center), formerly of Nickel Creek.
Punch Brothers, who will open Saturday's concert at the Wells Fargo Center, are led by mandolinist Chris Thile (center), formerly of Nickel Creek.
Posted: November 05, 2010

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Dave Matthews is playing the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday. He has a huge following around here, as he should.

But get there early and allow the opening act, Punch Brothers, to stretch your ears and scorch the air.

They're a five-piece band that mandolinist Chris Thile - the mutant-being/monster/musician who was, for so many years, one-third of Nickel Creek - says "looks visually like a bluegrass band, but that's only the instruments we play, not a creative agenda."

The "brothers" are Thile, guitar man Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny, violinist Gabe Witcher, and bassist Paul Kowert. As their recent CD, Antifogmatic, makes abundantly clear, these five are on fire to create something new.

Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Thile says, "We're five musicians in an intense, interconnected world who are absorbing a huge amount of musical information" and then "creating something that's interesting, and maybe something special that has to do with the way we play."

Play these guys can. Virtuosity: simply ridiculous. Thile is widely regarded as the best mandolinist in (at least) this arm of the galaxy, and the rest are just as prodigious. The 10 tunes on Antifogmatic feature stratospheric playing, arrangements bound for anywhere, five instruments with five gorgeous voices.

Thile hastens to add that "this isn't music that's saying, 'This is good for you.' We're hoping it's good music, with a little more candy in the finish - and maybe that's good for everyone."

These songs, while still songs, don't do it the way other songs do it. The opening track, "You Are," is an ambitious set piece that lurches from quiet, elusive croon to sudden, smashing wails of lust. Yet there's also humor, as in "Next to the Trash" (where my woman puts me). There's straightforward Appalachian stomp, as in "Rye Whiskey." And there are closer-to-conventional - and beautiful - songs, as in the closer, "This Is the Song (Good Luck)," with a memorable, timely chorus and message.

Antifogmatic (an old word for a good, stiff drink, "something that clears the head") is an ensemble effort. "Each of the songs," Thile says, "is the product of 9-to-5 work by all of us in somebody's apartment. Someone would bring in an idea, and we'd start trading suggestions, getting deeper into it, until we could all start creating together."

Thile says he likes the idea "that all of us have ownership of all the songs. I think audiences are really picking up on that feeling."

He complimented the crowd at last week's Punch Brothers tilt at World Cafe Live: "You could tell they were really listening and picking up on the right things." Philly-area music lovers have another chance Saturday night.


Dave Matthews Band and Punch Brothers play at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. Tickets: $40, $75, $85. Information: 1-800-298-4200, www.wellsfargocenterphilly.com/events.aspx.

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