When I saw the load-in last night for Punch Brothers, I knew we were in for a treat. I’ve been there for shows like GWAR where the load-in takes hours and hours and the whole club is covered in plastic, and there’s a crew of a few dozen people to make it all go together. Those shows can be fun, but I love it when it’s the opposite. There were five mice and five pedals and one mixer on the stage and a curtain behind them.
My favorite shows are often the ones where there is the least between the band and their audience, both effects-wise and distance-wise, and the show from Punch Brothers delivered on both counts. Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert are very possibly the most instrumentally precise group that I’ve seen live. I was doing some thinking last night after the show, searching my memory for a group that I could compare them to in that regard, and about the only group that fit the criteria were the Kronos Quartet.
Switching styles with grace, the quintet moved between traditional and progressive bluegrass last night, from new stuff to old stuff without so much as a flawed pick or missed note, and when you consider the complexity of the music they’re working with, from its manic picking to its dense harmonic structure, that’s the sort of thing you don’t hardly hear from a group that small.
My favorite point in the evening came, though, when their least experience singer picked up the mic for a cover of Through the Bottom of the Glass, a tribute to guitarist’s Chris Eldridge’s father’s band, the Seldom Scene. That honky-tonk classic sounded nothing short of divine from the quintet, with Chris Eldridge pulling off the Willie Nelson-esque vocals quite well. Let Critter sing more often, guys, Ben would’ve been proud.
As the night drew toward a close, I felt as if I had seen one of the better shows in DC, but what made it a perfect show was the encore. Thile returned to the stage toting just his mandolin, and I knew we were in for a treat. He played the Bach Sonata for Violin in G minor, the Presto movement, and he brought the whole house down. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the club that quiet. I’ve seen the G minor Sonata a dozen or more times, but I heard it anew last night from the mandolin of Chris Thile.
As I walked back out into the cold, my heart was warm with Bach’s joy, and of the Punch Brothers’ incredible talent. Well done, men.