This evening marked my first visit to the Sheldon; the venue struck me as a little surreal. I overhead a man behind me saying it reminded him of his college biology lecture hall, which is probably pretty accurate (though most lecture halls aren't this acoustically clear or have such a handsome stage). The building that houses the concert hall also has an art gallery, as well as a gift shop and a ballroom where weddings and other events take place. It's not your typical concert venue. But then again, Punch Brothers aren't your typical band.
Cheerful chatter and excited remarks echoed throughout the theater, but as soon as first artist Anais Mitchell opened her mouth, the talkative crowd turned completely silent. Mitchell, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar on stage, played a powerful, fiery 35-minute set that featured a few songs from her 2010 folk-opera "Hadestown," some from her soon-to-be released album "Child Ballads," and one that she said she could barely remember because of how old it was. She told a few cute stories, like thinking St. Louis was on the border of Kansas because of the Tom Waits' lyric, "I broke down in East St. Louis, on the Kansas City line," but for the most part let her music do the talking.
The simple backing guitar of the songs made it easy to pay attention to the lyrics, which was especially nice because of how beautiful the words were. "Come September" and an untitled new song, probably from "Child Ballads," had a great snarl and passion in the vocals, but also a sweetness to them. "When I think of my freedom, I feel so lonely," she sang in the new song. "And when I feel lonely, I want you to hold me, hold me in your arms."
Punch Brothers took to their favorite stage shortly after, dressed in classic three-piece suits, all with matching, beaten-up leather shoes.
Each member of the band has his own distinct playing style. Guitarist Chris Eldridge stands perfectly still for the most part and looks almost like a marionette who can only move his fingers across his strings. Gabe Witcher rocks back and forth while he fiddles, Noam Pikelny does a sort of glide step with his banjo and Paul Kowert stands wrapped around his bass, almost like he's hugging it. And then of course there's Chris Thile, the mandolin-playing, Jude Law lookalike whose animated kicks and electrified shakes seemed more like something you'd see in a punk band than a bluegrass quintet.
They started with "Movement and Location" from 2011's "Who's Feeling Young Now?" but quickly broke into a five-minute long jam session, complete with solos from most of the band. While one member showed off his talent, the rest of the band watched in admiration.
The instrumental breakdown ended with Thile and Witcher in a mandolin vs. fiddle noodling battle, which eventually broke into "This Girl," one of their most popular songs. For the most part, the band went back and forth between recognizable tracks and instrumental numbers. "The last song was a song in Swedish," Pikelny said at one point. "You may not have noticed because it was instrumental." I kept trying to decide if I liked the poppier, more indie-rock songs that I recognized or the incredibly well-played instrumental bits better, but realized I couldn't decide. Both sounded spectacular.
A few times, the band members all broke into dance together, as when they began doing box steps during "Next to the Trash." The dancing seemed rehearsed, but I didn't mind that you could tell the set was so planned out. There still was an exciting, original and wild feel to it, almost more like a play than a typical concert.
In addition to its original songs, the band played a handful of great covers. For a version of the Strokes' "Reptilia," the replacement of repeating electric guitar strums with mandolin strums made it sound entirely different. Punch Brothers also played a cheerful cover of classic country song "Through the Bottom of the Glass," where Eldridge took over on vocals.
Punch Brothers pushed aside their microphones for the encore, which featured two more covers done entirely acoustic. "Living in the Mississippi Valley," a John Hartford cover, was nice, but nothing blew me away more than when Thile did a solo cover of Bach. Yes, that Bach. As Thile plucked away, I found it incredible that one man could play on a mandolin what was meant for a full orchestra.
I'd been thinking about it for a while, but at that point, I realized Punch Brothers are probably one of the most talented groups of musicians in the world today. At that point, I realized just how different and special Punch Brothers truly are.