3/6/15 – House of Blues

When Chris Thile plays the mandolin, he looks like a puppet whose puppeteer has gone rogue. His knees buckle and his body sways in time to the music. His eyes and mouth open wide, and he’s got the chicken bob perfected down to a T. Of course, none of this movement slows his fingers down one bit.

The members of Punch Brothers are virtuosos. All of them. At their Friday night House of Blues show, I tried to figure out which was the MVP, but they just traded off solos that were mind-blowing in their technical prowess. Besides Thile, the five-piece band boasts Gabe Witcher on the violin, Chris Eldridge on the guitar, Noam Pikelny on the banjo, and Paul Kowert on the bass. (Yes, I’ve linked them all—if you play any of these instruments, or even if you don’t, check them out for inspiration.)

Punch Brothers gave us a set that pushed the limits of genre. Like the music of Thile’s other band, Nickel Creek, their sound is grounded in bluegrass and folk but tinged with jazz, classical, and rock. In the middle of their twangiest country song, Kowert interrupted with a classical tangent on his upright bass. His bandmates quieted down and watched with practiced, amused expressions as he switched from keeping the bassline to playing an elegant bowed solo that traveled from the neck of the bass to the bridge. Just when you thought he was done, he would start a new arpeggio.

The band kept us guessing with a colorful set. They kicked off the night and got the audience rocking with “My Oh My” off their latest album, The Phosphorescent Blues, and left us with the ethereal “Little Lights.” Some of Punch Brothers’ recorded music can be hard to listen to unless you’re ready to sit down and appreciate their dexterity. Live, however, it was like being in the presence of wizards.

All of the players were dressed up; some in suits, some in dress vests, all in ties. Punch Brothers maintained a playful presence with the crowd, mostly through the music itself, but also through some banter:

“How good it is to be here tonight, at the House of Blues… at the Lord’s House of Blues, on this holy Friday,” said Pikelny, his deep voice reminiscent of a preacher’s. However, the laugh that bubbled underneath his words undermined their reverence. Their music certainly isn’t pious. Just listen to Magnet (but maybe not with your mom).

Punch Brothers have a Houdini-esque stage presence that kept the crowd constantly hooting in appreciation. The band knew it, and fed off the energy, but they didn’t seem vain. Even if their music isn’t your taste, they’re well worth seeing live—something that few bands can claim.

Wizards in the Lord's House of Blues: Punch Brothers
Pros
  • Musical proficiency
  • Good audience interaction
  • Diverse set
Cons
  • Some songs lacked direction
  • Virtuosity over musicality
8Overall Score

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