LIVE: Punch Brothers @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 12/10/15
Review by Bokonon
Photographs by Timothy Raab
Punch Brothers have always been too intellectual for me. Until that Thursday night. Braniac Berklee bluegrass, all up in itself. Until that Thursday night. That Thursday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Punch Brothers gathered around a single mic and made mad musical magic.
Super Saratoga Springs singer Sharon Bolton sat in front of me, hooting righteously at the end of every number. I was right there with her.
Mandolinist Chris Thile is the point man of the band, and he’s been seen in the area in myriad permutations – solo, with Michael Daves, with Nickel Creek, with Edgar Meyer, with Brad Mehldau… But Punch Brothers is a band, and they functioned on that mic like an octopus, tentacles of sound weaving in and out. And it was clear from the first beat that the boys were as smitten with the room as the crowd was with them.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past 10 years,” banjo man Noam Pikleny deadpanned. “And one of the worst was not playing here before.”
Clustered around that mic, they would have fit at the Low Beat, they just wouldn’t have sounded good. And the Hall, indeed, functioned like a sixth member, wrapping the simple acoustic instruments in warmth and natural reverb. A great sounding band in a great sounding place, is there anything better?
The quintet zeroed in on its latest releases, the T-Bone Burnett produced album The Phosphorescent Blues and the follow-up EP The Wireless. As such, Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque: Passepied” nudged up against the instrumental “The Hops of Guldenberg,” and “Sleek White Baby” (with lyrics by opener Gabriel Kahane) nestled with the amazing sonic display of “No More. Yet.”
“Baby” found Pikelny driving the gypsy groove on a vintage resonator plectrum guitar, and making room for Kahane’s radio play craziness, which included stealing fiddler Gabe Witcher’s cocktail.
The band did dip back, too, particularly for a curious medley of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back In Time.” “Kid A,” naturally, made good on the weirdness always lurking underneath the beauty of the band, and “Wayside” reminded all of the crew’s bluegrass roots.
These gentlemen (including bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Chris Eldridge) are, to be fair, brilliant. Each is, in his own way, expanding the scope of his instrument and together, they are pioneers. It’s enchanting to know that they’ve become confident enough to play with heart as well as skill.
Come back soon.
Kahane, for his part, opened with a brace of songs stunningly served on piano and guitar. Unfortunately, his talents serve a millennial sense of humor that can’t let a moment pass without a wink. Filling, but not satisfying.
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The Punch Brothers played at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Thursday night, most of the time the five guys crowded around one microphone, sometimes so tightly packed that they barely had elbow room. The positioning, with Chris Thile in the center a good part of the show as leader and lead singer, presented an old-school Americana musical image, though the music was far beyond the picture. The five different string instruments delivered close to the range of a small orchestra, each member representing a string section. But blink twice and you’d miss them leap off their instrumental high horse and land on a knee-slapping country western tunes, as they did when they moved from ‘The Hops of Guldenburg’ to ‘Rye Whiskey.’ They excelled at both musical poles. Some numbers had intricately arranged parts, like ‘Between 1st & A,’ about leaving New York City. They worked without sheet music, playing scripts meticulously that fell out of meter, everyone knowing where everyone else was at every moment.”