Concert review: Punch Brothers knock out the Old Rock House, Thursday, December 9
Musical virtuosity often comes with a hefty price, with artists honing their skills to the point where technique and proficiency become secondary to the music as a whole. Thankfully this was not the case with Brooklyn, NY based progressive bluegrass super group the Punch Brothers.
Under the leadership of mandolin virtuoso and lead vocalist Chris Thile, the band nearly burned down the Old Rock House with the fiery passion for creating truly memorable music for which they are known.
Individually and as a group, the Punch Brothers have played with some of the best known names in bluegrass, jazz and classical music. From the opening notes of “You Are” to the last strum of the fan requested encore of the Band classic “Ophelia,” the skill level present in the members of this group was more than apparent. The band’s playing was effortless and technically flawless without losing the fire imbued in a good live performance by appearing over-rehearsed or bored with the music. I had to check the stage more than once when the band was in full swing as the 5-part vocal harmonies, showers of plucked notes from the banjo, wailing fiddle, rock-solid bass lines and furious mandolin strumming made it seem as if there was more than just a quintet on stage.
Band leader Chris Thile shared emcee duties with banjo maestro Noam Pikelny, both of whom showed a healthy sense of humor when conversing with and addressing the crowd. Although the entire band was smiling and laughing during the show, Thile seemed to be enjoying himself more than most and it came through in his playing. He danced and twitched around the stage as if Elvis Presley and David Byrne were fighting for control of his body, all while cutting loose some of the fastest strumming and most graceful solo licks I’ve heard in quite a while. Pikelny was no slouch either, his fingers a blur running up and down the fretboard. Chris Eldridge showed his proficiency on the guitar whether he was soloing or playing rhythm along with Thile. Gabe Witcher shared lead vocal duties throughout the evening as well as pouring out his soul into his fiddle. Bassist Paul Kowart, the newest member of the band, created a strong foundation for the rest of the band to swirl around and played an absolutely gorgeous solo bass rendition of the Carter Family classic “You Are My Flower” with Witcher on vocals.
Standout tunes from the show were the 2010 Grammy nominated cover of the Norman Blake tune “New Chance Blues,” “Punch Bowl” from the 2008 release Punch and “Rye Whiskey” from their newest album Antifogmatic. Several times throughout the evening, Chris Thile commented that it had been a while since the band had been in St. Louis and made a promise to return more often. I think I can safely speak for everyone in attendance tonight when I
say that we will hold him to that promise and greet him with a rousing “Oh Boy!” when the Punch Brothers drop by for another family reunion.