The tickets for Saturday night’s show at the Bomhard Theater read: “The Punch Brothers, featuring Chris Thile,” an obvious mechanism for making sure attendees realized that the band does, in fact, include the former Nickel Creek member, who along with the Watkins siblings helped find a place for bluegrass in pop music a decade ago.
Thile’s new band also blurs the lines between folk, bluegrass and pop and Thile is surrounded again with extraordinary talent. This time it is in the form of fiddle player Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and upright bass aficionado Paul Kowert. But while it takes all five of the members to sell the music, it is obvious that it really is Thile who sells the tickets.
“I love you, Chris!” shouted a lone female voice in the near-capacity crowd before the band was even fully on stage Saturday night. Thile, obviously used to this flattery, stepped into the spotlight with his boyish grin. “That is pretty intense considering the level of interaction we have had so far,“ he smirked.
And it was with this tongue-in-cheek goofiness that Thile fed the crowd from the palm of his hand for the rest of the evening.
Thile’s appeal is undeniable. His lanky frame, messy hair and charming presence put him on par with most of pop rock’s pin-up front men. He even man-handles his mandolin at times with a ferocious and idiosyncratic intensity reminiscent of the way pop pretty boy John Mayer plays guitar. And Thile’s voice is arguably more suited for Top 40 ear candy than any other form of music, with its slick falsetto and earnest strain.
But instead of starring on VH1 and seeking to be the constant star of the show, Thile seems to go out of his way to share stage with his comrades and he and the group play extremely technical bluegrass-infused versions of other people’s songs that are on VH1. Type “Punch Brothers” into YouTube and you will uncover pages of amateur video featuring the five musicians wailing through songs from Radiohead, the Strokes and the White Stripes. Saturday night, they took time from their own tunes to play through an obscure track from Brooklyn indie rocker Sufjan Stevens and worked towards the end of the set with a particularly harmony-laden version of the Beatles “Paperback Writer.”
But the Punch Brothers are really at their best when Thile steps in front and injects his emotional pop sense and acute lyrics into the bluegrass background. The sense that this ensemble could be capable of the same level of mainstream success as Thile’s former band is most palpable when the group is at its most subtle. The songs “This is the Song (Good Luck)” and “Missy” – both from the band’s latest album Antifogmatic – were the stand out moments Saturday night, showing that the band and front man have emotional depth that equals their obvious musical ability.
But the band doesn’t seem worried about fitting mainstream conventions. Their original songs are rife with mind-bending melody twisting and tempo changes (especially impressive given the group’s lack of a drummer), and their 90-minute plus performance Saturday played often like a segment from Prairie Home Companion (a program on which the band has been a guest), with band members taking time to introduce or back-sell almost every song and often telling small anecdotes or totally made up stories about the cover songs they were trying out.
And when the group was called back for an encore, Thile emerged from backstage solo and announced that he would try performing a classical composition by Bach – unplugged.
“This room looks pretty good,” he said almost to himself, before stepping away from the mic. “I think I’ll try it acoustic.” He took to the lip of the stage and proved to anyone who might be wondering that regardless of looks and charm, he is a very real talent.
As Thile finished his encore piece, another voice – this time distinctly male - yelled from the darkened Bomhard seats, “Now I love you, too, Chris!”
The audience roared with laughter.
Thile’s smile was even bigger this time.
“It’s all flattering,” he said. And you could tell he meant it.
Photo courtesy of Jud Bell