by Aaron Davis (for Jackson Hole Weekly, JHWeekly.com)
Jackson Hole, Wyo. – Seeing a phenomenal band for the first time usually trumps the proceeding performances. The 2010 Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival was my first experience with The Punch Brothers, and they were my favorite group of the three-day weekend. It was an early evening set on the festival’s opening night, a somewhat challenging slot.
Hearing this quintet of virtuosos inside at the Center Theater on Wednesday night, I thought that the venue not only suited them, but it allowed for a much more diverse setlist. Minute nuances ballooned. The hollowness of their acoustic instruments could be heard. It seemed as if the instruments weren’t even plugged in, but they were.
Bassist Paul Kowert introed the performance with bow in hand, delivering long, resonating notes that were eventually harmonized by Gabe Witcher’s creeping fiddle. An unnamed, mid-tempo instrumental followed with each member adding one layer at a time—a patient characteristic that dominates this intellectual folk-pop.
“You Are” would be lead-singer/bandleader/mandolinist Thile’s first vocal tune. “You take my love and my lust / Cold clock my mind out / Turn in my keys to the kingdom / And lip-lock my body down,” he sang. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the bow hair flew on a fast-pace instrumental, and that’s exactly what the crowd got next. As Thile’s fingers effortlessly fluttered up and down the mando fretboard during his quirky solo, my mind wandered to an equally odd juxtaposition—a thick hatch of pale morning duns hovering and lightly bouncing off the surface of Flat Creek without uniform, just improvising.
Banjoist Noam Pikelny (previously a member of Leftover Salmon and John Cowan Band) announced that the band was a little travel worn, having played two nights ago in Washington, DC. This is when the indie-pop portion of the night kicked off, with a tune that reminded me of Band of Horses, with electronic effects replaced by acoustic analog trickles that weaved around bouncy rhythms and falsetto vocals. A gorgeously quiet tune, “Missy,” preceded one of the evening’s few bluegrass standards, Bill Monroe’s “Breakman Blues.”
From here, the audience was rewarded with a solid batch of new material, some of which had been only performed a time or two, according to the band. I really enjoy seeing a band debut new material because, for better or for worse, a given song will never sound like it did in infant form, and thus the listener sees the most exciting term of its evolution. Though I didn’t care much for “It’s no Concern of Yours,” the intricately arranged “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” exposed the upper level musicianship that truly encompasses this ensemble.
One of my favorites of the evening, “Next to the Trash,” bounced between four or five different rhythms, including waltzing and swinging, with abrupt stops and keen time keeping. Another highlight came when Kowert and Witcher performed a duet of The Carter Family’s “You Are My Flower.” Kowert absolutely killed it. His bowed, upper-register arrangement demanded cross-string playing that was mind-blowing and in perfect time.
The two-song encore began with Thile on the front tip of the stage, performing a flawless rendition of Bach’s “4th Movement G minor Sinota” for violin. Wow, that was way cool to hear the theater dead quiet, allowing the mandolin tone to carry to every corner. I know that The Punch Brothers are major fans of Gillian Welch/David Rawlings, so it came as no surprise that they would conclude with a song from their new album, “Down Along the Dixie Line.”
I didn’t speak to one person after the show that wasn’t blown away. Seeing these guys live just has that awe-inspiring vibe. I appreciated the acoustic eclecticness, constantly interchanging genres, tempos, and grooves, often within the same piece. Their use of non-playing space—silence, that is—is perhaps their greatest tool.
PHOTO: The Punch Brothers at Center Theater (Aaron Davis)