Punch Brothers at Mercy Lounge, Nashville, TN 2.15.11
How many shows have you seen where a sold-out room goes crazy over a movement from a Bach concerto? And how many of those shows followed that piece with a Mclusky cover? Not too many, huh? That’s exactly what happened, though, when the Punch Brothers played at Mercy Lounge Tuesday, and that only scratches the surface of the night of music that followed.
Punch Brothers is the musical brainchild of former Nickel Creek vocalist and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. Named for a lesser-known Mark Twain short story, the band is known for combining elements of acoustic and bluegrass music with classical, rock and experimental sensibilities, resulting in a sound that truly defies labels.
Their latest record, Antifogmatic, is the band’s best yet (it was #15 in American Songwriter’s Top 50 Records of 2010), and Thile and company kicked off the evening with the record’s first two tracks, “You Are,” opening with Chris Eldrige on guitar, and “Don’t Need Know,” the latter of which featured violinist Gabe Witcher doing a pretty damn good job taking over on lead vocals. Both were enough to get the crowd riled up, to which Thile responded, “But it’s only been two songs!”
Quality defies quantity in the case of the Punch Brothers, however, as most songs only needed one or two notes to get cheers of recognition. Thile described another Antifogmatic tune, “Next to the Trash,” as a real “relationship number,” featuring lyrics like, “She puts my body away/next to the trash, under the sink/along with all the cleaning supplies and the things that we buy and decide we don’t need.” “Alex” and crowd-pleaser “Rye Whiskey” rounded out the evening of new stuff, until the quintet opted to play a “new” new song, a slow, pretty number called “The Full and Empty Hours,” which they anticipate to record for a new album this summer.
The band pulled from past albums as well, jamming on “Watch’at Breakdown” from 2006’s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (from the days they were still considered Thile’s solo project) and “Punch Bowl” from 2008’s Punch. A highlight of the evening also came from Punch, when the guys played the first movement from Thile’s 45 minute string quintet “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which banjo player Noam Pikelny noted was one of the ten most requested songs at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon in 2010. No kidding. Despite a radio-worthy speaking voice, Pikleny’s real talent lies in his banjo licks, which provide a rhythmic backbone for many of the band’s songs.
Almost as impressive as their original compositions are the covers, which included the Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” (that “other rival bluegrass band from New York,” as Thile put it), Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back in Time,” which featured a standout solo from bassist Paul Kowert, a portion of a Bach concerto (I can’t remember which one, and I’m going to blame that on the whiskey, Carrie Underwood/Cuervo-style) and Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus.” That last one is a personal favorite because, really, who the hell does Mclusky covers on a mandolin, and does them well?
The Punch Brothers are all about the music, labels and genres and flashy sets be damned, and as such, they’re one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and probably always will be.