I have never in my life said, “I really want to listen to Punch Brothers right now.” I do not own a Punch Brothers album. I only know a handful of their songs. But when I was asked if I wanted to see Punch Brothers live, I did not hesitate. I said yes.
I know Chis Thile more by reputation than sound. I’m vaguely familiar with his first band, Nickel Creek (which, by the way, he started when he was eight), but more familiar with his more recent work as the successor to Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion, and more importantly, as a MacArthur Genius Award-winner for his mandolin playing.
I knew that was something I needed to see in person. And I was not disappointed.
Punch Brothers (not actually brothers, at least not by blood) are, quite simply, a marvel to witness. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the four men on the stage, all dressed to the nines and with cocktails at hand as bougie former frat boys. But then they start to play. And there’s no real way to qualify the music they play. They are, by strict definition a bluegrass band—fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar. They are not bluegrass, but they are also not-not bluegrass. They are, I think, classical music meets mountain music meets, well, something we’ve never heard until now.
Thile, clearly the star of the band, struts and jerks his way around the stage as he plays while the rest of the band stands (mostly) still. He provides lead vocals, they provide sweet harmonies. And they all do it all so masterfully that it almost looks easy.
The crowd, a mix of beards, tattoos and people who looked like they may have skipped out on Family Home Evening a little early to make it to the show, were highly-focused and mostly silent as the group played a nearly two hour set, including everything from songs the audience knew the words to to a version of 20th century French composer Claude Debussy‘s “Passepied.” Oh yeah, and a couple songs inspired by tiki drinks. Of course. (I told you they were a little bougie!)
Thile, ever the charming NPR host, cracked wise about some of his less inspired lyrics, the President of the United States of America and the crowd’s appearance—often bringing the rest of the band in on his jokes.
By the time they came out for their encore, still in suits and ties, to sing the audience favorite “Rye Whiskey” with the audience shouting out the refrain “Oh boy!” each time it appeared in the song, I was saying the same thing in my head. Oh boy. This band is magic.
I’ve been listening to them all day.
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