AUSTIN — The third time proved the charm for the Punch Brothers. The progressive acoustic ensemble has endured some growing pains in its five years, suffering under the weight of both its talent and ambition. But last year’s “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” suggests a band with punch, yes, but also legs. Chris Thile — the childhood prodigy, recently minted MacArthur grant genius, premier mandolin player and ringleader of the Punch Brothers — admitted as much when the band began touring behind the album last spring.
“There was this feeling of twisting arms,” he said. “Like the music needed explanation. On this record we’ve grown up a little bit. We’ve made a clearer, more concise statement that is less elaborate. A little less full of itself. I think that was important to us. We’re making music for people and with people. So the communal experience has become more important for this band.”
Thile, 31, started the band after Nickel Creek went on an indefinite hiatus. He’d been performing with that very successful trio for 18 years starting at age 8.
From the beginning, the Punch Brothers suggested grand-scale ambition, starting with a name pinched from a Mark Twain story. Thile was the focal point of the new group, but he surrounded himself with some of the best acoustic players in the country: guitarist Chris Eldridge (Infamous Stringdusters), banjo player Noam Pikelny (of Tony Trischka’s band), violinist Gabe Witcher (a longtime Jerry Douglas associate) and bassist Paul Kowert.
“Punch” was released in 2008 and was a lofty debut built around a four-movement suite about love and loss. It’s a richly deep piece of music but not the sort of thing that necessarily lends itself to high-energy bluegrass-y shows that sometimes include Radiohead covers.
“Antifogmatic,” released two years later, proved a transitional recording.
“After we started touring it, people started singing along to our songs for the first time,” Thile said. “So when we went back to the writing room, we wanted more of those ideas.”
That led to “Who’s Feeling Young Now?,” the best distillation of the band’s bountiful talents thus far. More specifically, it sounds like a band comfortable with its aspirations as well as aware of the constraints of the musical idiom it has done much to expand.
“There are no limits except for our instrumentation,” Thile said. “That’s our thing: We’re not going to (mess) with the instrumentation. It’s what we do, it’s what we play the best, it’s what we understand. But after that, all bets are off. There are little voids in music that you become aware of as you try to interact with music in a meaningful way. They become apparent. All the bands and songs you love, occasionally, they come together to create nothing. You see this song-sized hole, and you just write this song.”
The band, Thile said, has also grown more comfortable working on the songs together. “It’s less process-y and more think tank-y,” he said. “I think having a process you adhere to is a surefire way to land in some serious writer’s block. For us, there are as many processes as there are songs. Making music with these guys is a constant source of joy for me. So we try not to write the same song twice.
“We’re always kind of barking up different trees.”
With Anais Mitchell
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Fitzgerald’s, 2706 White Oak; Tickets: $18; 713-862-3838 or www.fitzlivemusic.com
Editor's note: A previous version of this story had the bassist incorrectly listed as Greg Garrison.