Punch Brothers bring bluegrass to Beacon

By Carter G. Shelter

via Carter G. Shelter for WSN
via Carter G. Shelter for WSN

It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of band Punch Brothers are. Sure, they play bluegrass instruments, but they do so with the virtuosity of the best classical performers, the pop song sensibility of today’s hit makers, and the improvisational abilities of the jazz greats. The crowd that filled the Beacon Theatre on Thursday ranged from people in their teens to those in their 80s. Some came expecting a rowdy beer-sloshin’ hoedown, others a precision-tuned acoustic performance. What Punch Brothers delivered was somewhere in the middle.

Opening the night was a bilingual set of jazzy, soulful folk tunes from Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno, the highlight of which was when she brought out actor/musician Oscar Isaac (star of The Coen Brothers’ movie “Inside Llewyn Davis”) for a beautiful Spanish-language duet. Moreno’s voice sounded like something you might have heard crackling through a tabletop radio circa 1943, and her songs echoed marvelously around the theater.

Led by mandolin player and lead singer Chris Thile, Punch Brothers took to the stage, greeted the crowd, and kicked off the set with “My Oh My” and “Boll Weevil,” describing the latter track as “a traditional song about the apocalypse” and the former as “a more modern song about the apocalypse.” Neither the crowd nor the band dwelt upon such heavy subjects for long though.

After moving quickly through the instrumental “Watch ‘at Breakdown” and the catchy folk-pop of “This Girl,” Thile and co. gave the night’s first real standout performance with “Familiarity,” the 10-minute opening track of their new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues.” The extended tune allowed the band to put all of their strengths to use. Shifting between passages of impressive playing, driving folk rock, and Beach Boys-esque harmony-laden pop, it ebbs and flows before building to a crescendo that gives way to a softer folk ending.

On stage, Thile is a ball of boyish energy and charm. His sly smile possesses a sort of puckish quality, his wide eyes are always wildly expressive and when steps away from the microphone and displays his prowess on the mandolin, his body and face twist and contort along with his playing. Many musicians say that their instrument is an extension of their body, but for Thile it’s almost as if his body is an extension of his instrument. The notes he wrings from the small neck of the mandolin seem to dictate his every movement. Despite the softness and tenderness of his voice perfectly complimenting his music, Thile is at his most dynamic when he focuses on his instrument.

While the rest of the band may not match Thile’s energy, the talent level of all the members is off the charts, and each got the chance to shine throughout the evening. Bassist Paul Kowert delivered a deliberately out of place (though impressive nonetheless) bass interlude in a cover of “Through the Bottom of a Glass,” a country song by The Seldom Scene and Gabe Witcher delivered some vicious fiddle in “New York.”

There really isn’t another band like Punch Brothers out there right now. How many other artists could seamlessly mix songs by Impressionist composer Claude Debussy (“Passepied”), contemporary singer-songwriter Josh Ritter (“Another New World”), and alt-rock icons Radiohead (“Kid A”) with traditional folk numbers and their own songs into their regular setlist? Maybe it’s their instrumental virtuosity or maybe it’s their great tunes that get you in the door; whatever it is, there’s a reason the crowd at the Beacon was hooting and hollering all night long. Punch Brothers deliver. Creative set lists, a myriad of styles, an immensely entertaining front man, and musicians who are simply some of the best players out there make their show one of a kind.

Carter G. Shelter is a staff writer. Email him at music@nyunews.com

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