November 17, 2010
The Punch Brothers delvered a right cross to an otherwise dull Wednesday evening at Birmingham Alabama’s WorkPlay Theater on November 17, 2010. The proverbial uppercut knockout scene played out in an industrialized soundstage setting that was full of hard, metal surfaces and mellow folks. People appeared to be hanging from the rafters in the double-decker wrap around mezzanines. The joint was buzzing with anticipation after the Brothers’ recent critically acclaimed performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. As the musicians took to the stage with charm, magnetism, and a wire choir of stringed instruments, all signs pointed to an enjoyable night.
Chris Thile led the well-trained group of young bluegrass pioneers on the night’s musical journey. One thing that stood out for the duration of the evening’s show was how intently the patrons focused and listened. During the quietest of dynamics, a pin drop could be heard. This fact was of strong importance with such subtle intricacies of mandolin and banjo lines-these softer portions would not have been heard without the crowd’s exceptional respect. Proving to be quite the conversationalist, Thile further enthralled the crowd with his pontifications before each song began. He demanded the crowd fight off the hump-day doldrums and enjoy the tunes.
The set of songs resonated like a greatest hits playlist. "Me and Us," "Alex," and "How to Grow a Woman from the Ground" all made appearances on this evening. The band’s classical training was evident with each nuance of the music. Chords did not travel along the typical I-IV-V road, but rather ventured into undiscovered territory. Let’s just say humming along with this group is a more arduous task than, say, The Monkees. Just as easily as the band flows through major and minor theory studies, they can jam out on a whim, with the most glaring example being the especially rockin’ performance of The Strokes’ "Reptilia."
"Rye Whisky" seemed to be the obvious crowd draw of the night. As the band bobbed on stage in their tight five-man string arc, the audience jumped for joy and sang along happily with a resounding, "Oh, boy!" Noam Pikelny’s banjo riffs meshed well with Thile’s mandolin lines, only to be topped by young Paul Kowert’s smooth bass grooves. The band prefaced this song with a tale of Kowert’s days in the band before he reached a legal drinking age. On that note, all seems to be well now as each member whetted his whistle with some pre-song "maple syrup."
At the close of the night, Thile persuaded the audience to join his "trust tree" as he transformed a British alternative-punk trio McClusky’s song "Icarus-Smicarus" into bluegrass bliss. This ever-entertaining musical powerhouse certainly knows how to conclude a show in style.
While it seems as though many shows have jam fans that are zoning out to the atmospheric background music, The Punch Brothers’ shows are forcing audience goers to shut up and listen. The typical fans’ party culture has been stripped to the soul as musical thoughts are being fully transferred from artist to patron. On this night, The Punch Brothers gripped the audience with their charisma and would not be denied their due attention.
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