[ATTENDED: December 7, 2015] Punch Brothers
Chris Thile is a member of Nickel Creek whose last album I loved. He’s also appeared multiple times on Tiny Desk Concerts (with several different bands). And that’s where I saw Punch Brothers for the first time.
Punch Brothers are five guys–Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass). They play a sort of bluegrass, but with a lot of elements of classical music (their debut has a classical suite on it and now they cover Debussey live). Other labels given to the band include “bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical” as well as “American country-classical chamber music.”
That all goes a long way to not really describing what the band sounds like.
The five guys stood around one old timey microphone (like in the poster). ANd they blew us all away.Thile is an amazing madolin player–he plays amazingly fast riffs and solos but also excellent percussive rhythms. He’s also a great bandleader and a very funny frontman.
The band started out right away with “In Wonder” the leadoff song from their new EP “The Wireless.” This led to a bit of a humorous discussion of the term EP and how it is an extended play but is shorter than an LP. Someone in the audience shouted out that it’s longer than a single, and Thile seemed delighted and surprised (I think he may have had some kind of spiel ready, but he immediately grabbed on to that and said that the audience member must be having a good day. Before continuing, the banjo player, Noam Pikelny (who has a very deep voice) observed that he always thought that EP was better than nothing. Which led Thile to ask how his day was going.
I don’t know a lot of Punch Brothers songs, but the one that really made me love the band was “Magnet,” a rollicking “naughty” song which they played an amazing version of.
Then they played a great instrumental “The Hops of Guldenberg,” which Thile explained was about beer. Then he said that really any instrumental can be about beer unless specified otherwise. This segued nicely into the sing along “Rye Whiskey.”
I really enjoyed the way they mixed up their faster songs with their slower ones, like “Forgotten.” The songs with words usually featured some gorgeous harmonies (the microphone that they were using was amazing at picking up every sound and nuance). Thile has a great voice–hitting all kinds of notes, and being very expressive.
But I was mostly impressed by the instrumentalist tracks. Nearly every one featured some wonderful solos from every player (including the bassist).
They played two very different songs in a row from Who’s Feeling Young Now? “This Girl,” and almost comical song and “Movement and Location” which features a powerful bass, some really notable violins and some very cool mandolin on the off beats.
Then they moved to the classical portion of the show, where they covered Passepied, a Claude Debussy piece. The introduction was great. “This is a piano piece meant for one player, which means it’s very easy for us to play because there are five of us.” It was lovely and amazingly classical even with the mandolin.
Then they played a few New York based songs, “Alex,” “Between 1st & A” and “New York City.”
They played an amazing version of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” I loved that way that intense song, with its screeching ends segued perfectly into the high-spirited and fast picking of Gillian Welsh’s “Wayside (Back in Time).”
At one point the banjo player told us about how they were going back to their roots using just the one microphone–back in the early days they had but one microphone. That was when they were still talking to each other backstage. And then he prepped us for the big set change–he and the guitarist switched places for a couple of songs.
Gabriel Kahane came back on stage to do the recitation of the new EP’s “Sleek White Baby” (a song that he wrote the words to). He was very funny as he stole the band’s drinks in between spoken sections.
They ended the set with my favorite song from the new album, “My Oh My” (such great harmonies) and then a rollicking version of “Boll Weevil.”
They came back for an encore. Thiel explained that on the new EP “Clementine” (an Elliot Smith song) was done on one microphone while the other songs were done with multiple microphones. So to simulated the experience of going from multiple to one, they were going to go from the one mic to none. And they played in front of the microphone and sang directly to us un-amplified. They sounded amazing. Thile raved more than once about the sound of the Theatre (which they had never played at before) and I sure hope someone from State Theatre heard that and can use him for an endorsement.
Including this last song meant that they played all of the songs from the EP, as well as four songs from The Phosphorescent Blues, and four songs from Who’s Feeling Young Now?
My only gripe for the set was that a guy who was about 7 feet tall with a pumpkin head sat right in front of me as the band was going on. About midway through the show I moved (there were open seats behind me!) and all was well. The other gripe is that State Theatre prohibits flash & video but the room was so dark that even non flash photos are impossible. So the only remotely decent picture I got was this one.
It was interesting to listen in on the people leaving the show. Someone was complaining that they didn’t play something (I didn’t hear what) and then commented on how amazing it would be to see them in a really small venue (although I thought this was pretty intimate). But since I had no expectations, I was delighted with everything. It was a great show and a lot of fun.