On July 28, the American Acoustic tour featuring the Punch Brothers, Watchhouse and Sarah Jarosz rolled on to the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre stage. There were so many highlights of the performance—and I wasn’t even that high (a bit punch drunk maybe).
When the entire ensemble took the stage for the opening number I knew we were in for something a little different. They kicked it off with “Little Birdie,” a well-known staple of American bluegrass and old-time music.
The Punch Brothers and Watchhouse exited stage right to allow Jarosz to showcase her talent. She did a solo acoustic rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Her version really stripped down the Irish rockers’ song to its American roots. The cover was a magical moment and we were just getting started. Punch Brother Chris Thile then joined her with his mandolin for her 2016 song “Lost Dog.” Yet another highlight!
From the opening number to the encore, the musicians played a solid three hours without a break. Their show felt like an amp-less relay race with great acoustic musicians passing the baton as they moved toward a collective victory. Talented players ebbed and flowed on stage all evening and played American roots music with Julliard precision. After Thile and Jarosz’ dueling mandolin session, the whole ensemble came back on stage for a joyous bluegrass version of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” Nathaniel Smith, a celebrated cellist who joined the Watchhouse crew for this tour, added haunting depth to the old song. Smith proved that the cello, a long ignored instrument in popular music, has a place alongside the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, upright bass or acoustic guitar.
Jarosz ended her set on the banjo playing the bluegrass classic “Little Satchel.” The Watchhouse crew joined her for the number and carried the baton for their leg of the show.
The harmonizing duo Emily Frantz (on fiddle) and Andrew Marlin (on mandolin or acoustic guitar) make up Watchhouse, formerly known as Mandolin Orange. On Thursday night they added cello and upright bass to the mix and launched into a beautiful version of their song “Echo.” The crowd cheered during “Gospel Shoes” and its prescient lyric “Freedom was a simple word so reverent and true/ Long time ago it meant the right to choose who you love and how you live, now it’s misused/ Twisted by the politics of men in gospel shoes.” They ended with the Punch Brothers joining them on stage for an extended jam of their 2019 track “Golden Embers.”
The Punch Brothers played nine songs before turning the stage into a collective jam session, filling the Amphitheatre with a collaborative energy. They gave “The Angel of Doubt” a hip-hop feel, inviting that genre into the American roots music family. When all the players took the stage for the Punch Brothers’ song “Rye Whiskey,” sister Frantz took lead vocal. With ego set aside, the team showed how individual talent flourishes under a collective umbrella.
The generosity and egalitarianism continued with a shared encore. The Watchhouse song “Wildfire” felt like the cherry on top of a magical night of acoustic music in a beautiful setting. The full crowd listened intently until the very end. Dave and the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre sound crew did a fabulous job. The Garden felt and sounded like a concert hall.
I hope these artists continue this American Acoustic tour next season and maybe add someone like Dom Flemons or Rhiannon Giddens to the mix. Their performance at Red Butte was a showcase of American roots music by a cadre of virtuosi.
- Who: Punch Brothers and Watchhouse featuring Sarah Jarosz
- What: American Acoustic tour (and incredible mountain music jam session)
- Where: Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre
- When: July 28, 2022