It was pretty much guaranteed that Sunday night would not be a typical Punch Brothers show when frontman Chris Thile announced at the onset that fiddler Gabe Witcher would not be on hand due to the impending birth of his baby.
Throw in the remaining members' discovery of High West distillery's Double Rye whiskey before the show (not to mention enjoyment throughout), and the result was a gig that might not have been all it would have been with Witcher on hand, but also one that hardly seemed to lack in showmanship, outstanding playing and strong songs.
Mandolin ace Thile and his fellow Punch Brothers--guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and banjo man Noam Pikelny opened with the sprawling Josh Ritter tune "Another New World," stretching in myriad directions while each of the players took a solo to loosen up after Thile compared not playing with the full lineup as "sort of like camping. We're missing some of those essential comforts, like a roof."
Bouncing between instrumental jams and songs with Thile on vocals, as well as between new songs just recorded for a new album and older favorites, the Punch Brothers cruised through nearly 20 songs over the course of a perfect evening at Deer Valley. Songs like "This Girl" and the rapid-fire instrumentals got the crowd going early, and the energy stayed high throughout.
A cover of Elliott Smith's "Clementine" was a nice surprise early on. Same goes for brand new songs like "Charleston" and "Heaven is a Julip on the Porch" later on.
"I am really feeling the love from this whiskey!" Thile announced before taking another sip and leading the band into "Patchwork Girlfriend," easily one of the show's highlights. Another was when Eldridge took over on lead vocals for "Through the Bottom of the Glass." Appropriately, Punch Brothers ended the set with their tune "Rye Whiskey" before a brief encore.
Opener Willie Watson was a late addition to the bill, and his solo folk/country set was a winner as well. A former member of Old Crow Medicine Show (thanks for the knowledge, Dan and Kiki Buehner!), Watson delivered several tunes from his Folk Singer Vol. 1 album, including "Rock Salt and Nails," "Keep It Clean," "Stewball" (which he managed to turn into a singalong) and his cover of "Midnight Special." A talented guitarist and banjo player, Watson also proved a distinct vocalist during his 40 or so minutes on stage. Well worth seeing him next time he comes around.