NC Museum of Art, Raleigh
Thursday, July 16
How do you write critically about a band you think makes almost no bad moves? This is a question I often consider with Punch Brothers, the Brooklyn-based quintet that merely appears to be a bluegrass outfit. They meld bluegrass with classical, country, rock and jazz influences using great technical skill and precision, for results that sound little like any other band. Punch Brothers were sharp when I saw them play the 600-capacity Cat’s Cradle in late 2010 and were even sharper when they delivered a slick set to the near-full 2,700-capacity amphitheatre at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Thursday night. It was their first appearance in the Triangle since their big 2013 gig at IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass.
There wasn’t a single flubbed lick or forgotten verse; frontman Chris Thile and his cohorts executed every moment flawlessly. Even bassist Paul Kowert’s “butting in” with a bass solo toward the end of “Through the Bottom of the Glass” and his bandmates’ faux incredulity was a well-rehearsed and terribly charming move. Because they’re touring on the heels of a new LP, Punch Brothers pulled primarily from the The Phosphorescent Blues, adding a few tracks from 2012’s Who’s Feeling Young Now? and “Rye Whiskey” from 2010’s Antifogmatic. The band has phased out selections from its famous four-part suite “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” from 2008’s Punch, but the set wasn’t without its longform moments. “Familiarity,” The Phosphorescent Blues’ 10-minute opener, served as the show’s stunning centerpiece, though the ambient chorus of chirping crickets and cicadas dulled the song’s quiet close.
Punch Brothers have long played a one-two combo of covers—Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time).” They reprised it between “Julep” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me.” It’s an unofficial, subtle marker of the band’s dynamism: They can deliver a spookily spot-on acoustic take of a song originally performed with electronics before tearing into their breakneck rendition of Welch’s contemporary classic. The transition felt natural.
All of Punch Brothers’ members had solo moments in the spotlight, but fiddler Gabe Witcher is worthy of extra commendation for his impressive manipulation of the fiddle and a drum contraption that’s new to the Punch Brothers. With his fiddle tucked under his chin, Witcher managed to play a kick drum, a rack tom, a snare and two cymbals with his hands, mallets, bow and feet. Drums can at times be troublesome additions to acoustic outfits (Witcher himself called drums a “fascist regime” in 2013), but Punch Brothers are accustomed to making the unlikely happen.
The band closed with “Magnet,” an upbeat and electrifying tune from The Phosphorescent Blues and the perfect pre-encore teaser. Thile and company returned to the stage for “The Auld Triangle,” an a cappella the band recorded for Inside Llewyn Davis. They quickly shifted to a cover of Norman Blake’s “New Chance Blues” before ending with “Little Lights,” a slow-burning ode to finding meaningful connections in a distracted era of smartphones.
Toward the end of that song, Thile sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” in a manner much more dramatic than the upbeat traditional number. As a band, Punch Brothers do just that: They somehow outshine themselves over and over again.
Punch Brothers, “Watch ‘At Breakdown”
My Oh My
Watch ‘At Breakdown
The Hops of Guldenberg
Movement And Location
Through The Bottom of The Glass (Leon Rausch)
New York City
Kid A (Radiohead)
Wayside (Back in Time) (Gillian Welch)
Don’t Get Married Without Me
The Auld Triangle
New Chance Blues (Norman Blake)