Punch Brothers Concert: A Review
October 3, 2009
Bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, came to our little university town last night with his new band, the Punch Brothers. In addition to Thile, the band consists of Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowert on upright bass, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Gabe Witcher on fiddle. All of them assisted on harmonies at one point or another, though Thile and Witcher handled the bulk of the vocals, and all of them provided some scintillating musicianship during the course of the evening. Kowert in particular did some amazing work on the bass, not only showing off his skills, but also his creativity with the instrument.
Thile, though, is the focus of the band. He is the front man, the lead vocalist, and the group’s most dynamic personality. Watching him is nearly as mesmerizing as listening to his mandolin work. He dances, bounces, shimmies, and struts his way through the band’s repertoire, looking like a wannabe rocker who somehow has had his Stratocaster replaced by a vintage Gibson mandolin at the last minute. He’s charming, funny, and it’s clear that he and his fellow musicians are having a blast playing together.
For those of you who are not familiar with Thile or his music, he has been recording on the mandolin since he was twelve years old. He is a true master, who not only plays brilliantly (while still in his teens, he had already recorded a couple of solo albums backed up by such bluegrass giants as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Alison Brown, and Russ Barenberg) but also writes wonderful songs and instrumental pieces. He formed Nickel Creek along with Sara and Sean Watkins, and for several years they were one of the hottest groups in bluegrass. But Thile continued to do solo work and to collaborate with other acoustic instrumental stars. (His 2001 release Not All Who Wander Are Lost is, in my opinion, one of the finest acoustic instrumental albums of the last 25 years, ranking up there with such classics as Bela Fleck’s Drive, The Telluride Sessions by Strength in Numbers, Bela Fleck’s The Bluegrass Sessions: Live From the Acoustic Planet, volume 2, and Skip, Hop, and Wobble, by Douglas, Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer.)
Nickel Creek split up in 2007, and since then Thile has been playing with the musicians who would eventually come to be called the Punch Brothers, and ranging farther from bluegrass. While the instrumentation of the Punch Brothers’ music remains fairly traditional, and while they still do some bluegrass instrumentals, as well as a number of bluegrass and country covers that sound like something Nickel Creek might have done, much of their original work sounds like an alloy of bluegrass and indie rock. The songs modulate, sometimes wildly, and Thile’s vocals have a plaintive sound that works well with some of his angst-driven lyrics. To be honest, I find this end of their repertoire less appealing than the more traditional pieces. But there can be no denying that the predominantly college-age crowd reacted well to the entire concert, and went absolutely crazy when the group did an acoustic Radiohead cover for their first encore.
Overall, it was a terrific show. Given the chance to see the Punch Brothers in concert again, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy tickets.