The Punch Brothers: You Are
Those Who Dig has made no secret that we are fans of Chris Thile and The Punch Brothers. Previous articles include an album review of their latest release Antifogmatic, and a reflection on the artistic ambitions of Chris Thile. You may even recall that with the launch of the new site we gave away a copy of Antifogmatic to a lucky reader. As such, when I heard that the group was performing at The Strathmore I jumped at the opportunity and was rewarded with a concert of impeccable musicianship.
The venue is elegant and intimate with sensational lighting and sound, and although my seat happened to be remarkable, there really isn't a bad seat in the house. Nevertheless, I was struck by the fact this venue required the audience to remain seated throughout the performance and thus all general ruckus would be kept in check. The band was nonplussed by this fact and performed with tangible energy and charisma.
My favorite thing about this quintet is their dynamic control. Their virtuosity and instrumental fluency is so effortlessly under control that they are able to shape and direct every phrase. This is unfortunately a rare compliment in popular music as most bands with commercial appeal only play soft or loud and do not (cannot) explore the vast areas between. During the concert I first noticed this in Gabe Witcher's violin solo during the song Missy. He anchored each flourish to the final note in the gesture and made melodic direction and notational importance indisputable and distinct. In general, throughout the course of the concert dynamic control was always of utmost importance. Their vocal harmonies were secure, their sense of ensemble and blend was refined, and even when the band was performing at their highest dynamic intensity there was evidence control and forethought.
The set list for this performance was heavy with original material from all three of the ensembles releases. Nevertheless, the duo of Gabe Witcher (vocals) and Paul Kowert (bass). did dip into some traditional repertoire from the Carter Family. This arrangement was tasteful and impressive as Kowert navigated the entire range of the bass with relentless intonation and rhythmic groove.
The Punch Brothers are also masters of the contemporary cover and they displayed their prowess in a rendition of the Radiohead classic, Kid A. I love hearing Radiohead through the filter of The Punch Brothers, especially when they endeavor upon less conventional material such as Kid A. Their willingness to explore every part of the instruments timbral range is admirable and imaginative. In this particular cover I was impressed by the warm tone color in Noam Pikelny's banjo playing.
I admire The Punch Brothers attitude that nothing is off limits to them. One of the galvanizing forces behind this band was Chris Thile's ambition to compose, record, and perform a forty minute work in four movements that walked the line between folk and formal music (The piece is The Blind Leaving The Blind and is featured on their album Punch). As a band, they successfully navigate the murky waters between genre and concert etiquette in order to perform the formal, the traditional, the original, and rock. They refuse to be bound to a sound or label and are one of only a small handful of artists able to achieve this feat.
Finally, The Punch Brothers were gracious enough to meet their audience after the performance. They signed autographs, took pictures, sold merchandise, and generally sold themselves on and off stage through out the entire course of the evening. As a fan, I appreciated this gesture and took advantage.