March 26th, 2014
The Capitol Theater in downtown Madisonâ€™s Overture Center for the Arts typically plays host to classical music, opera and Broadway-style shows. It is a beautiful venue, with lush curtains, amazing acoustics and room for about 1200. On Wednesday, the Capitol Theater had the honor to host something a little bit different; itâ€™s stage was graced by one of the strongest acoustic bands around: Punch Brothers.
Punch Brothers are Chris Thile on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and Madison favorite son Paul Kowert on upright bass. While their instrumentation is that of a traditional bluegrass band, there is nothing traditional about them.
They opened their set with Josh Ritterâ€™s â€œAnother New World,â€ before launching into â€œThis Girl,â€ a driving, emo-grass original with Punch Brothers signature blend of melodrama, excitement, tension, beauty and wonder. Chris Thile has been playing music since he was a small child. He has spent the majority of his life touring and he has had the amazing fortune to do so alongside some of the worldâ€™s greatest musicians. But to see him on stage, his excitement never wanes. He is always excited, always jumping around, dancing, bopping with enthusiasm. Chris Thile isnâ€™t just a great musician, heâ€™s a genius. (The MacAurthur Foundation says so!) But on stage, he is a young boy being offered an opportunity to live out his dream. And on this night, on this particular stage, emanating aura and ambiance, the band finished â€œThis Girl,â€ took a moment and then leaned into their mics for a tight, three-part harmonied, â€œAmen.â€
After making a joke at his own expense and reflecting on the beauty of the venue, Thile asked the crowd if they had room in their heart for the five-string banjo. Needless to say, they did. And with that, Pikelny blasted right through it with the raw power and ability that he brings to every show. Punch Brothers are a super-group built around the genius of Thile. But itâ€™s hard to imagine this band without Pikelny, a true master on his instrument. He can be subtle and graceful with ease (something that cannot be said of every great banjo player); he can perfectly augment the eerie melodies and ethereal musical faces of this super-group. But when he is unleashed, he can move mountains, he can level cities. He is a force on a five-string banjo.
After showing off some amazing instrumental mastery, the band introduced a new song called â€œMagnet.â€ â€œMagnetâ€ is a quirky three-minute pop song about the gravitational pull that people can have on each other. It would not have seemed out of place on a Justin Timberlake album, with its strong and catchy hook, funny-but-not-silly lyrics, driving verses and danceable beat. And of course, itâ€™s a love song, without ever mentioning the girl of the songâ€™s affection.
The band then took off their collective quirky hat and launched into their emo-swing-classical track, â€œDonâ€™t Get Married Without Me.â€ On a dime, Thile went from pop-star to crooner, the band flawlessly transitioning right alongside him; Witcher and Pikelny really locking in for the chaos and the exuberant flourishes that help make this song soar beyond its form.
Pikelny introduced the next track as being dedicated to Wisconsinâ€™s greatest export… beside Paul Kowert: cold beer. They then played â€œNew York City,â€ before Thile called on the band to raise their red plastic cups to the crowd, â€œCheers, yaâ€™ll, this is fun as hell.â€
After a heartfelt â€œMissy,â€ complete with a fiddle solo from Witcher so intense it seemed to briefly shock Thile, Chris asked his band mates if they felt a shift in the air. Eldridge readily agreed that something was happening. Thile asked if it suddenly felt more French. Again, there was no disagreement from Eldridge. Thile explained that the band only knew one French song, and it was by Claude Debussy. The crowd cheered and Thile asked if there were any Debussy-Heads in the audience that night. When the crowd cheered louder, Thile launched them into a rousing chant of â€œClaude! Claude! Claude!â€ Many a classical composer yearns for the day to hear his name chanted by the masses in a sold-out theater. This was Claudeâ€™s day. They played â€œPassepied,â€ revealing the true mastery that Punch Brothers has outside of genre or limitation.
The band then called out opener Aoife Oâ€™Donovan to add her breathy charm to their set.Â She joined Thile for the choruses of â€œHere and Heaven,â€ adding an ancient sound to the Isles-lilted ballad that the two co-wrote along with Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.
Oâ€™Donovan left the stage too soon and the band launched into â€œPatchwork Girlfriend,â€ a wonderful track that is part Eastern European, part French gypsy, and part Irish pop song. On the quirkier and more off-beat interludes, Thile likes to pretend he is a robot, stammering and stuttering through his melodies. Witcher took the mic for his lament about â€œCity Girls.â€ In the middle of the track, the band dropped out and Kowert drove the song solo, much to the delight of his hometown crowd.
Punch Brothers are a band that moves between styles of music with ease. They use bluegrass instruments to play anything but. So it was almost surprising when Pikelny introduced the next song, Kenny Bakerâ€™s â€œWheel Hoss,â€ and the band ripped into this raging fast, traditional bluegrass number as if they had never played anything but a fiddle tune.
Once the band went traditional, they decided to stick around for one more. Eldridge led the band in â€œThrough the Bottom of a Glass,â€ Paul Craftâ€™s classic country song about the world looking better after your cup is empty. In the middle of the song, the band suddenly opened it up, revealing their meta-nature, taking the traditional Nashville walking line after the chorus to the absurd, walking down, down, down before repeating the chorus. But the joke wasnâ€™t done, it was just starting. This time, Kowert pulled out his bow and played the classic lick, classically, and then again an octave up, and then again, and again. Working his way from the bottom of the neck to the very top, he finished the final lick directly on top of his bridge. At this point, the crowd cheered and Thile threw Kowertâ€™s arm in the air, declaring him the champion. His grandmother in the crowd must have been very proud.
Thile announced to the crowd that â€œyou are amazing to play music for,â€ and the band finished out the set with â€œWhose Feeling Young Now?â€ the title track of their most recent full length album.
While the capacity crowd was cheering for more, a tech came out and set up a condenser mic in the middle of the stage. Thile literally skipped back out, the rest of the band following closely behind. Thile explained that if anyone had seen Inside Llewyn Davis, they had seen a band perform this next song. The band in the movie wasnâ€™t Punch Brothers, but they looked a lot like them. Chris sang solo a cappella through the first verse of â€œThe Auld Triangle,â€ an Irish prison lament, before being joined by the band for stellar five-part harmonies through the refrain. The back and forth continued throughout the song, culminating in the comedic final verse, where the protagonist accepts his lot of life, simply wishing he could be serving his sentence in the womenâ€™s prison. Thile invited the crowd to join in for a final chorus and the stellar five-part harmony became an all-encompassing 1200-part harmony, which shook the curtains and added new dimension to one anonymous prisonerâ€™s lament.
Not prepared to end the night on such a somber note, Thile asked if anyone was thirsty, before launching into crowd favorite, â€œRye Whiskey.â€ Instead of the curtains shaking, this time it was the floor, as the full crowd stomped their feet in time and sang along about the age old truth that life is simply better with rye whiskey.
Follow Josh KlemonsÂ on twitter @jlemonsk