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Punch Brothers, Infamous Stringdusters at Four Corners Folk Festival

The countdown is on: just three more weeks until the 16th annual Four Corners Folk Festival kicks off, taking place Sept. 2-4 on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs. Ticket sales have been stronger than ever and it’s no surprise with this year’s powerful lineup of diverse musical talent: Keb’ Mo’ Band, Los Lobos, Natalie MacMaster, Jackie Greene, Jimmy LaFave, Caravan of Thieves, Chatham County Line, Cousin Harley, The Black Lillies, MilkDrive, Anne and Pete Sibley, Joy Kills Sorrow, SHEL and this week’s featured artists: Punch Brothers and The Infamous Stringdusters.

 These two bands have quite a lot in common: both are made up of outrageously talented young men; the average age of each band’s members is somewhere in the late-20s range; and both bands are currently experiencing a meteoric rise in the world of Americana/newgrass music. There are many who would say that Punch Brothers and The Infamous Stringdusters are responsible for a whole new generation of acoustic roots music fans, and helped pave the way for the rise of superstar folk bands like Mumford and Sons and the Decemberists.

Punch Brothers is the latest project of Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, who is widely recognized as one of the world’s most foremost mandolinists. The group’s second CD “Antifogmatic” was released last year to critical acclaim.

 “Antifogmatic” is a bit of bygone slang that Chris Thile and his band mates stumbled across. “It’s an old term,” explains the Punch Brothers founder, “for a bracing beverage, rum or whiskey, that one would have in the morning before going out to work in rough weather, to stave off any ill effects.” It’s an apt title for the Punch Brothers’ second Nonesuch disc. This 10-song set of collectively written material takes a clear-eyed view of those things less tangible than booze that can make us woozy: the pleasures and pitfalls of romance, the seemingly limitless possibilities and multifarious temptations of life in the big city.

The stories the Punch Brothers tell in “Antifogmatic” — partly autobiographical, partly imagined — were shaped by after-hours camaraderie as much as musical collaboration; they’re ultimately about drinking everything in as well as drinking what’s in front of them, though there was plenty of that, too. Concludes Thile, “The boys and I would work all day in one of our apartments and then we’d want to go out and have a drink. That’s what you do in New York City, because everyone’s apartment is too small to hang out comfortably in. We’re a group of five guys. If friends start attaching themselves to the fray after that, you forsake the one-bedroom apartment and you go into the incredibly vibrant bar scene that isn’t merely an encouragement for intoxication and spending obscene amounts of money per drink. It’s really a wonderful way to get to know your fellow man, with your top button unbuttoned and your tie loosened a little bit.”

The arrangements on “Antifogmatic”range from intimate to boisterous and back; genre-wise, the band once again ventures where no string band has ever gone before. The spare opening track “You Are” contrasts percussive guitar riffs with lyrical string parts that dance around Thile’s sweet upper register as he spins a tale of romantic emancipation; occasionally, the other instruments give way to reveal the beat of the bass. The band also engages in some unexpectedly beautiful harmony singing, smoothing out the compelling melodic twists and turns of “Welcome Home.” “Me and Us” and “Woman and the Bell” both have a dream-like quality; the former, in fact, was inspired by those jumbled, thought-filled moments before sleep sets in, and the instrumentation keeps pace with the ever-shifting imagery. In contrast, “Don’t Need No” and “Rye Whiskey” are foot-stomping barroom boasts and “Next to the Trash” is the closest the band gets to traditional bluegrass, even as the lyrics tug the piece in a more surreal direction.

Thile has earned the right to impart a bit of his own hard-earned wisdom in the lyrics he’s contributed to “Antifogmatic,” which the quintet cut live at Ocean Way in Los Angeles with producer Jon Brion and engineer Gregg Koller. At the heart of the Punch Brothers’ 2008 debut, “Punch,” Thile’s four-movement “The Blind Leaving the Blind” chronicled in cathartic detail the events and faith-shaking emotions surrounding the dissolution of his youthful marriage. The musically rigorous, personally revealing composition—carefully notated but allowing room for improvisational passages—came to vivid life in the hands of the former Nickel Creek singer’s old friends and newly recruited bandmates: guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, violinst Gabe Witcher and bassist Greg Garrison, each of whom were already envelope-pushing figures in the forefront of modern bluegrass, folk and country. After the departure of Garrison, Paul Kowert, a member of mandolinist Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, stepped in.

 “The Blind Leading the Blind” was bracketed by four collaboratively conceived instrumental pieces from this freshly minted group, a foretaste of what was to come two years later on Antifogmatic. Upon the release of “Punch,” the Washington Post described this then-new band as “some of the best string-band pickers of the new generation, and Thile has given them rich, challenging music to wrestle with.”

Punch Brothers will play the Four Corners Folk Festival at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, opening for headliner Los Lobos.

(Punch Brothers material was written by Michael Hill.)

 Perennial festival favorites The Infamous Stringdusters manage to balance a fluency in old-timey bluegrass with indie jamgrass sensibilities. There is no other band quite like the Infamous Stringdusters. Emerging from a lively community of friends and colleagues that’s taken root in Nashville, they’re six musicians poised at the point where youthful energy is balanced with maturity, inspiration with discipline and creativity with experience — exactly the sweet spot where the greats of bluegrass have made their most lasting marks.

 Schooled in tradition, yet able to stretch out in jam band style improvisation, endowed with razor-sharp vocals, fiery instrumental abilities and a rapidly growing repertoire of well-crafted original songs and tunes, the Infamous Stringdusters are as fresh an addition to the bluegrass—make that, the music—scene as has come along in many a year.

 “They’re young, bright, articulate, immensely talented, and they can sing in the old style or in their own style,” says award-winning Blue Highway guitarist, singer and songwriter Tim Stafford, who produced “Fork In The Road,” the sextet’s February 2007 debut for Sugar Hill.

 Untangling the threads of the Infamous Stringdusters’ origin is nearly impossible, thanks to the breadth of professional associations and friendships that brought its members together in various combinations. Still, a few highlights are worth noting, from the joint tenure that Andy Hall, Jeremy Garrett and Jesse Cobb shared in three time IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Ronnie Bowman’s band, The Committee, to the initial encounter between Andy, original guitarist Chris Eldridge and Chris Pandolfi in Boston, where Andy had graduated from the Berklee School of Music not long before Chris became the first student there admitted with the banjo as his principal instrument, to the lengthy search that resulted in Durango, Colorado jamgrass mainstay Travis Book’s joining the band, to the recent recruitment of Andy Falco, an elite Nashville guitarist who has always been a friend of the band. Indeed, the six musicians’ resumes cut a swath across the bluegrass mainstream, and beyond.

 Andy Hall (dobro) toured and/or recorded with icons like Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton and Charlie Daniels while recording his own solo album (Redwing) that featured soon-to-be members of the Infamous Stringdusters. Andy Falco (guitar) is the newest addition to the group and recently toured with Alecia Nugent and The Greencards. His wide-ranging abilities have been previously on display in working with such diverse artists as Vanessa Carlton and Levon Helm of The Band. Chris Pandolfi (banjo) studied with Tony Trischka, earned a Bill Vernon Memorial Scholarship, recorded a solo album (“The Handoff”), and toured with the New England Bluegrass Band, the Grammy-nominated Russian country-bluegrass group Bering Strait, and former Leftover Salmon mandolinist Drew Emmitt. Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) performed with an array of bluegrass artists, including Bobby Osborne, Chris Jones and Audie Blaylock, backed award-winning country singer Lee Ann Womack, and released an album (“Garrett Grass—Bluegrass Gospel 2005”) with his father, Glen Garrett, that featured dozens of top-shelf bluegrass pickers and singers. Jesse Cobb (mandolin) served a stint with Grand Ole Opry member Mike Snider, performed with Jim Lauderdale, Melonie Cannon, the Fox Family, Valerie Smith and Lee Ann Womack. Travis Book (upright bass) anchored Colorado’s Broke Mountain, winners of the prestigious Rockygrass band competition in 2003, and performed with Benny “Burle” Galloway, arguably the best-known independent songwriter on the jamgrass scene.

 Yet as deep as their individual experience runs, the Infamous Stringdusters are quick to assert that the band is more than the sum of its parts — and after a furiously busy couple of years on the road, they’re attuned enough to one another that they complete each others’ sentences. Their closeness of mind and prodigious talents make for tight, quick-moving live shows that sparkle with an infectious energy.

 Not surprisingly, audiences have responded with fervent enthusiasm, creating a word-of-mouth buzz that’s brought the Infamous Stringdusters a startling string of triumphant appearances at venues usually indifferent to acts that have yet to release their first recordings. And whether they’re appearing in a hard-core bluegrass hall in the famed Pennsylvania-Maryland firehall circuit, a crowded showcase suite at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual trade show, at a hip club like the Passim in Boston or the Rodeo Bar in New York, at a straight-up bluegrass festival like the Joe Val festival or Colorado’s loose-limbed Rockygrass, the group’s abundance of talent and passion have won them a multitude of new fans.

 With the release of “Things That Fly” in 2010 the acclaim is guaranteed to grow wider and deeper.  Many think the group is the vanguard of what bluegrass music is going to become as a whole new generation of fans embrace the genre. The Infamous Stringdusters will be back for their sixth straight appearance at this year’s festival, performing at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2, on the main stage, and headlining the Saturday night show at the Ross Aragon Community Center with an 11 p.m. set.

 This is the second year that the festival has used a ticketless system, which cuts down on paper waste and protects buyers against lost or forgotten tickets. Advanced admission can only be purchased by phone or online through a simple, easy and secure process. To purchase tickets or for additional information about the festival schedule, bands and lineup, visit the festival website at www.folkwest.com, or call (877) 472-4672 (locally 731-5582).

 FolkWest is a Colorado cultural non-profit that receives financial support from the El Pomar Foundation, La Plata Electric Roundup Foundation, and the Ballantine Family Fund.

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