On The Town
December 28, 2007
Chris Thile's Newgrass Gets A Little More Blue With His New Band
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
Mandolinist Chris Thile's new band has a new musical vision, and he needed an old bluegrass favorite to achieve it: the banjo.
Thile, whose former band, Nickel Creek, was the most important Newgrass group in a generation, will celebrate the new year on stage in Chicago with the Punch Brothers. The instrumentation looks similar to that of Nickel Creek, but the Brothers have a banjo, the only instrument as closely associated with classic bluegrass as the mandolin.
Only a month ago, Thile stood on the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and, flanked by his Nickel Creek bandmates, bid farewell to the band they created 18 years ago when Thile and fiddler Sara Watkins were 8, and Sara's brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, was 12.
They’d given their followers a year’s notice of the hiatus--duration unknown--citing the need to go their separate ways and try new things. As they took their final bows, they looked less choked up than serene, and satisfied, not unlike marathon runners after a win.
“I think it was a relief for everybody,” says Thile about Nickel Creek’s final stretch. “We were mostly just having fun, having a good time saying goodbye.”
Thile is waving goodbye to one of the young millennium’s feel-good music stories. Nickel Creek was a band of prodigies, signed in 1999 to the respected roots music label, Sugar Hill, while he and Sara were still in their teens. Nickel Creek released three successful CDs and a CD/DVD best-of collection, picking up awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association and a Grammy along the way.
But Thile is looking straight ahead to New Year’s Eve at The Old Town School of Folk Music, an official beginning of sorts for his new band, the Punch Brothers.
“It’ll be the first time that the boys and I have played as an entirely committed quintet,” says Thile. “Now it’s our main project. This will be our first time all together like that.”
The Punch Brothers -- named after a Mark Twain short story -- includes two Chicago area natives, banjoist Noam Pikelny and bassist Greg Garrison, along with fiddler Gabe Witcher and guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge, the last formerly of the Infamous Stringdusters, which he left for Thile.
Though Thile recorded last year’s “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground” (Sugar Hill) with this line-up, their upcoming disc, “The Blind Leaving The Blind” (Nonesuch, February 26), promises a fuller realization of Thile’s new musical vision, and the quintet’s reason for being.
“I wanted to write a long-form composition [of 40 minutes duration] that employed a style of composition a little more open ended than that which we associate with classical music,” says Thile, “but also more planned than the composing you associate with folk music.”
Fans of Thile’s voice on such Nickel Creek songs as “The Lighthouse’s Tale” need not worry.
“I really love to sing,” says Thile, “but I love to play more. I feel that I’m an instrumentalist first and a vocalist second. I wanted to write music that took into account my own feeling about myself as a singer verses myself as an instrumentalist.”
A devout Cubs fan in spite of his California roots, Thile hoped to relocate the band to Chicago, but those plans are on hold for the time being. Even scattered throughout the country, the Punch Brothers have formed a tight bond.
“Greg is in Colorado,” says Thile, who lives in New York City. “Gabe is in L.A., and ‘Critter’ and Noam are in Nashville. The one thing I was concerned about was getting rehearsal time like a band living in the same place, so we’ve got this pledge: one group rehearsal a month. But we’ll be on the road a lot, so there will be rehearsals and creating hopefully during that time. We’re so committed to this project that I don’t think any sort of space is going to stand in our way.”
New Year's Eve with The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, December 31, 7:30pm & 10:30pm, $28, free champagne toast at late show only. 4544 N. Lincoln Ave, 773-728-6000.
More about Chris Thile:NICKEL - Nickel Creek at Schuba's (Chgo Trib, May 9, 2001)