The Sanders Theatre crowd reluctantly began to file out of their rows after giving Punch Brothers their third and final standing ovation of the evening. The man standing behind me turned to his friend and said matter-of-factly, “That was the best show I’ve ever been to.”
The giant oak doors on either side of the stage were still propped open, latecomers streaming into the hall, as opening act Gabriel Kahane took to the stage. The diminutive, wild-haired and wryly pretentious Brown grad, dressed with a suit jacket, Levis, and sneakers, leapt across the stage from grand piano to electric guitar, looking like Woody Allen and Mozart’s love-child. His esoteric “art music,” as he calls it, isn’t as easily palatable as pop standards. But his songs are certainly worth the effort. He was bitingly ironic and a wizard at the piano in “Neurotic and Lonely” from his Craigslistlieder, during which the crowd whooped and roared. They listened in rapt silence as Kahane delivered the tenderly reverent “Ambassador Hotel,” a song about the hotel in which Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. His voice mournfully sang in sweet harmony with his guitar, “the Ambassador’s been bleeding out, now they’ve let her die.”
At some point during Kahane’s set, an older couple entered the hall on the right side and helped each other climb to their seats in the third row, right in front of me. Upon sitting down, the woman slowly pried open a ziploc bag of nuts, her efforts to keep her snack discrete spoiled by the hall’s acoustics. As she passed a handful over to her a husband, a girl in front of them craned her neck to spot the cause of the noise. She locked eyes with the man for a brief moment before turning her back. The man shot lasers into her back for the next fifteen seconds.
Soon after, Punch Brothers took the stage to thunderous applause, the five members of the progressive bluegrass quintet gazing upward in awe with smiles plastered on their faces at the glorious Sanders Theatre architecture. “This might be the most beautiful place we’ve ever played,” said mandolinist and lead singer Chris Thile to the now-packed hall.
For those of you who haven’t been inside Sanders Theatre, it’s a must-see venue. It’s essentially a gothic church, pews facing a raised stage backed by ornate amber paneling stamped with a Harvard crest. The domed ceiling provides ample natural amplification.
The following 105 minutes could only be described as a riveting display of musicality, ensemble playing, and pure chops, as the quintet played a wide range of selections from their two most recent albums, The Phosphorescent Blues and accompanying EP The Wireless, as well the older Who’s Feeling Young Now and Antifogmatic.
The show was a part of the band’s one mic tour, for which their entire set was amplified by one omnidirectional microphone. As banjo player Noam Pikelny said, their motivation wasn’t a lack of funds or because their van was stolen — rather, they think their music sounds better this way.
The decision’s benefits were evident on the first number, “Between First and A.” For the beginning of each phrase, a set of interwoven lines on all five instruments, the band members leaned towards the mic to feel the downbeat, the silver pole a star whose gravitational pull drew the musicians’ orbits closer. The tender, contemplative track had even more weight in a live performance. And from there they jumped right into what Thile called the “debauched” “Magnet,” the tongue-in-cheek toe-tapper about two centers of attention pushing each other away.
This opening pair of tracks only hinted at the emotional roller coaster that was to come, as the band covered the entire spectrum of human feelings. In “Julep,” Thile painted a picture of what he imagines heaven to be like, with a hypnotic bass line marking the passage of time behind him. In “My Oh My,” Thile laid aside his smartphone to take in the world around him. Then there was “Rye Whiskey,” the band’s foot-stomping soundtrack to their nights out on the town. “Forgotten” is a soothing reassurance to someone alone and in pain, the chorus a chanted reminder – “Hey there/ it’s all gonna be fine/ you ain’t gonna die alone/ you ain’t gonna be forgotten.” The song’s closing four part harmonies can touch the loneliest of souls.
Also on display were the band’s virtuosic abilities on their six instruments – Gabe Witcher’s fiddle, Chris Eldridge’s acoustic guitar, Paul Kowert’s upright bass, Pikelny’s banjo, and Thile’s mandolin and voice. As I mentioned earlier, this show was long – the band must have played 25 songs – but each number was met with roaring applause more enthusiastic than the one before it. Their symphonic sounds, dazzling solos, and witty banter kept the audience on the edge of their seats entire night. After “The Hops of Guldenberg” and “Movement and Location,” Pikelny leaned into the mic. “Folks… (it’s how he opens every quip) we just played a song about beer and a song about baseball. We truly are the people’s bluegrass band.”
Witcher and Pikelny’s fingers flew to create a flurry of notes and stirred a sense of urgency in the pleading, searching “New York City.” Eldridge’s playing was quintessential bluegrass guitar on “The Hops of Guldenberg,” his crisp delivery like pebbles beneath your feet on a dirt trail on a warm summer day. Thile’s voice soared to octaves unimaginable in the final choruses of “Movement and Location.” But perhaps no song was more impressive than a cover of Vassen’s “Flippen [The Flip].” It opened with an extended bass solo from Kowert, the only musician playing as his fingers leapt up and down the fingerboard to deliver the song’s arpeggiated melody in every octave possible. And the middle featured an extended break from Thile, modulating like a madman as he let the melody lead him to destinations unimaginable, evoking a Bach sonata. As the band joined back in for a final chorus, our elderly nut-eating friend from earlier was on the edge of the seat vigorously nodding his head and tapping his leg, his cane lying unnoticed on the floor next to him.
The band’s encore, “Familiarity,” included all of the qualities that make Punch Brothers such a good live show. An eleven-minute song, its first section pushes the band’s instrumental skills to their limits. The song opened with Thile playing an uninterrupted sequence of sixteenth notes while calmly singing the melody above. In the second section, Thile and Eldridge strummed mandolin and guitar in tandem, while Pikelny plucked a delightfully lagging accompaniment and Witcher and Kowert leaned into their strings, ebbing and flowing to create a tidal wave of dynamics.
The song’s close is all about emotional depth. It features a slowly swaying melody that fades away as the band’s voices hold the final chord before sliding down as one in resolution. During this time my eyes turned again to the couple in front of me, remembering that less than two hours before the man had been prepared to start a fight with the woman who had dared look at him while he eat his trail mix. His wife slid a little closer to him on the bench and he gently placed his left arm around her shoulder.
- Enthusiastic audience
- Emotional depth
- Exceptional musicianship
- Mic had feedback for 10-15 seconds
- The show ended