The Punch Brothers were born at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2006, and the original lineup of The Punch Brothers officially played their final show at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2023. Formed by mandolin player Chris Thile and fiddle player Gabe Witcher, the two wanted to start a project with banjo player Noam Pikelny, and they’ve since arguably taken “bluegrass” to the apex of the discipline in regards to composition.
But Gabe Witcher has decided that it is time to move on. “Our beloved bandmate of all 18 years of Punch Brothers, Gabe Witcher, has decided it’s time for the next step in his musical journey. We feel so lucky to have been able to build this band with him, and will continue to look to him for inspiration as we move forward,” the band announced on June 1st, circling their appearances at the 50th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival as Gabe’s swan song with the band.
On Sunday, June 18th, Gabe Witcher, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, along with guitarist Chris Eldridge, and bass player Paul Kowert took the stage at Telluride to play the final show in front of the festival crowd. Chris Thile explained how the group came together in Telluride.
“The way the Punch Brothers started was we were doing a sit in—I was asked to sit in on Yonder [Mountain String Band’s] set at the Sheridan [Opera House], and Pickles (Noam Pikelny) and I had met before, but I’d forgot about that, which he reminds me about most days. But I was like, ‘Oh my God, who’s this dude?’ We played and we played and played, and we played with Yonder on stage until they kicked us out because it was quite late. Then we went to the [Hotel] Columbia when they let musicians stay in the Columbia. And we jammed … maybe this is why we don’t. We played fiddle tunes until about seven in the morning. And then I called Gabe the next morning and said, ‘I think we need to start a band with this banjo guy that I met. His name is Noam Pikelny. And [Gabe] was like, ‘Pickles? I just played on his record.'”
“So on the 50th Anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, to be here in the place that started The Punch Brothers and so many bands over the years, Gabbers, we love you so much.”
Later in the set, Noam Pikelny (“Pickles”) cracked on Chris Thile, pointing out that he first played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on the 20th Anniversary, and this year, he played no less than five sets in various projects (solo, Nickel Creek twice, The Punch Brothers twice). “You cheer now. But through a very sophisticated mathematical model of what’s to come, but the 75th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, there will be 2,768 sets involving Chris Thile. The town will be filled with zombies just saying ‘Ahoy!’ to each other.”
After their main stage set, The Punch Brothers later played a more intimate set at the Sheridan Opera House where it all first began.
Gabe Witcher is a Grammy-winning fiddle player and producer, including earning six nominations with the Punch Brothers, and four as a producer. His career in bluegrass started at the tender age of 6 when he was invited on stage to perform with Bill Monroe at the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite in 1984. He played in The Witcher Brothers for about 25 years, and later joined the Laurel Canyon Ramblers with legends Herb Pedersen and Byron Berline.
Witcher has worked on projects from the likes of Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Beck, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, and arranged music for Rhiannon Giddens, Boston Pops, San Francisco Symphony, and others. He’s also worked on TV, film, and video game projects, including composing and arranging music for the well-regarded soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption 2.
Gabe Witcher will be replaced by Brittany Haas, making it The Punch Brothers … and sister. Haas is regarded as one of the premier fiddle players of this generation, and has performed in multiple bluegrass outfits, including as part of Steve Martin’s bluegrass band, and her quartet Hawktail that includes Punch Brother bassist Paul Kowert. She also has performed as part of the house band for Live From Here (previously called A Prairie Home Companion) hosted by Chris Thile.