in performance: the punch brothers

punch brothers 

During the opening moments of Punch Bowl, the leadoff tune of the Punch Brothers’ industrious and frequently virtuostic performance last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts, you could almost see stylistic expectations fall to the ground one by one.

Fronted by ex-Nickel Creek-er Chris Thile, the quintet employed familiar bluegrass instrumentation – banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and fiddle – as well as plenty of the organic warmth that can’t help but bloom when such instruments play off each other. But the resulting string music couldn’t have skirted tradition more.

In Punch Bowl, there was a touch of gypsy mischief in the fiddle work of Gabe Witcher. Within Thile’s vocals were traces of the blues. And as for the banjo dissonance that Noam Pikelny applied against that tune… well, who knew where that came from? Imagine Sun Ra playing bluegrass (without the space suits, of course) and you at least get an idea of the merry experimentation that occurred during the program.

In a nutshell, the Punch Brothers reveled in music not so much rooted in traditional bluegrass, although Witcher’s vocal lead on Jimmy Martin’s Ocean of Diamonds was happily knee-deep in it. Instead, mandolinist Thile and company seemed to model their band after the late ‘70s and early ‘80s West Coast “dawg music” groups of David Grisman.

Listening to the way Witcher emerged as the most conversational but commanding musical voice in Thile’s 40 minute, four movement opus The Blind Leaving the Blind more than once brought to mind the fluid, jazz-like phrasing violin pioneer Darol Anger gave to Grisman’s records decades ago.

The rest of the ensemble was equally industrious. In fact, the blend of classical and contemporary airs during The Blind Leaving the Blind – not to mention instrumental runs and exchanges of pastoral-like reserve and warp speed briskness – was so complete that Thile’s pouty vocal passages in the piece seem almost intrusive.

More alert in the vocal department was the overtly poppish drive of Nothing, Then, where Thile sang like a grassy Michael Stipe and the band championed a ruptured, pensive groove that sounded like a staccato variation on the theme from The Twilight Zone.

Curiously, the most modern works in the 90 minute set – namely covers of the Strokes’ Heart in a Cage and the White Stripes’ Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground – revealed some of the Punch Brothers’ more rustic, Appalachian-inspired interplay.

Most telling of all was the encore reading of Norman Blake’s Green Light on the Southern – a tune full of unsentimental Americana storytelling that the band illuminated all with kinds of dizzying but still-controlled new grass colors.

It was as if the Punch Brothers had booked passage on the very railroad line that roared along in Blake’s song, had confidently stowed all their stylistic baggage on board and were happily bound to parts unknown.



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