You know that when a concert crowd ranges from gray-haired senior citizens to baseball-capped tots, something special is occurring. And so it was on Sept. 29 at the State Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., where the varied group was in attendance to catch what turned out to be an awe-inspiring performance by world-class bluegrass band Punch Brothers.
To start the night, opener Tom Brosseau tested out the theater’s incredible acoustics with an off-mic, a cappella arrangement of a traditional folk song that, he later admitted, he’d recently learned out of a book. His high, reedy voice could, without much projection, be heard all throughout the vast space, and it set the tone for the rest of his set.
While his songs were strong, Brousseau’s between-song banter made up the best part of his set. He talked up his grandmother (“We have a great relationship”), hydrofracking (“You have that around here, right?”) and his home state of North Dakota (“Where there’s a beautiful girl behind every tree, only there, there are no trees”). It was absolutely charming.
The event was actually advertised as the “Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile,” and there was a good reason for this: As the founder of the group and the main singer and songwriter, Thile draws the most attention, and is considered, in many circles, to be among the best mandolin players in the world.
This is not to sell the rest of the band short. Bassist Paul Kowert, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Elridge and banjo player Noam Pikelny are incredibly well-regarded musicians, both in and outside of Punch Brothers.
Opener “Movement and Location,” off of this year’s fantastic Who’s Feeling Young Now?, proved to be the perfect introduction to their talents, both as individuals and as a group. Each instrumentalist gave a tiny solo within the song’s tight structure, as each seemed to move in one of three time signatures at any given time. Seeing this song live, I was struck by just how tough it was to play, the musicians curling around each other, instruments staying in step, even as they flew all over the place. It was incredible.
Live is truly the way to listen to this band. During a series of interludes and instrumentals, the members flew all out, rocketing forward at intense speeds and soloing with an indescribable mixture of precision and violence. The audience responded in kind, clapping and shouting whenever someone onstage pulled off a particularly impressive run. Needless to say, this happened all the time. Two moments, I think, sum up just what made such a breathtaking performance.
The first was a cover. While the band pulled off a number of songs by other artists that night – including a cover of “Reptilia,” by a band they called the “biggest bluegrass band in the world,” The Strokes – their best was of “Kid A,” a Radiohead song. Whereas the original is all electronic blips and treated vocals, in Punch Brothers’ hands, it was a noisy, chaotic, effortlessly complex and completely beautiful highlight.
The second was an encore. Remarking on the room’s wonderful acoustics, Thile and the band unplugged their instruments, scrapped their planned encore and came out to the front of the stage to perform one of, in my opinion, the most beautiful songs of all time: the traditional folk song “The Moonshiner.”
Done sparsely, without flourishes, their sound slowly drifted to every corner of the room, sending chills up and down my arms. I haven’t seen a better performance in quite a while.