Photo credit: Eleanor Cleverly
Let’s get one thing straight: Punch Brothers (@punchbrothers) are not a bluegrass band. Not strictly speaking, anyway. Their sound is an ingenious conglomeration of rock, blues, funk, jazz and classical; they just happen to have a prodigious knack for bluegrass and the right instruments.
On Thursday night, they didn’t hide their delight in playing the classic Town Hall. Their set was preceded by Jesca Hoop (@jescahoop), whose grim themes are glossed over by poetic, abstract lyrics. She plucks her electric guitar like a banjo, and her breathy vocals belie her underlying edge.
Punch Brothers, meanwhile, use the mandolin and violin to mimic an electric guitar with surprising success. In their sliding blues notes, minor keys, thrilling harmonies and grooving bass lines, they expose an edginess as seductive as it is haunting. Their experimental approach unearths sounds, laden with beguiling textures, that those instruments didn’t know they could make.
This is music rooted firmly in jazz — solos are thrown around amongst the instruments and improvisation, revealed by the bands’ amused reactions to one another, abounds within each song’s structure. The captivating instrumental songs are composed like concertos, with movements featuring unpredictable tempos and shifting melodic themes. This is music for intellectuals; the pieces can be dissected and scrutinized, all the while making toes tap, bodies sway and hearts reel.
Chris Thile, the pulse of the band on lead vocals and mandolin, does a good deal of reeling and swaying himself onstage. He’s animated and theatrical, and on his riveting solos, he’s essentially taken over by some otherworldly spirit. As believers in blues folklore might say, he seems to be selling his soul to the devil with each tune. The band stands back to watch, shaking their heads at his extraordinary skill.
That said, with Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowert on bass, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Noam Pikelny on banjo, extraordinary skill runs rampant in this band. The five of them slink around the stage, floating forward and falling back for solos and facing off for duets.
The two-hour set at Town Hall featured a balanced variety of songs: the ragtime rhythms of “Patchwork Girlfriend”, the bass strings that pull at heartstrings in “Missy”, the desperately pleading lullaby “Clara”, and the manic picking of “New York City”. Pikelny, in his booming deadpan, explained that not all of their songs made the cut for the new album, and one in particular was unanimously considered “too derivative”. With that, they launched into “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. Later, Hoop joined for a classic, lilting murder ballad, which was strangely fitting.
In their final song, the raucous “Rye Whiskey”, a man from the crowd jumped up onstage and sauntered across in front of them, depositing his suit jacket in front of Thile and sashaying off to the other side. “I have to say, that was one of the most respectful stage rushes…,” Pikelny remarked when they returned for their encore. Thile, trying the abandoned jacket on for size, responded, “It’s true. As far as stage rushes go, that was incredibly subtle… It’s the first time that’s ever happened to us.”
To close, the band stepped forward, away from the microphones, where they played two songs to commemorate the passing of Earl Scruggs and Levon Helm. They topped a classic Earl Scruggs banjo song with The Band’s “The Weight”, inviting the audience to sing along.
Though the triumphant song was acoustic, the energy in the theater was electric.