When Punch Brothers are in town it’s big news. Since 2006 Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass) have been playing their irresistible bluegrass-based mix of styles in a unique way that’s earned them a growing army of fans around the world. 2008 was their Celtic Connections debut, following the release of their first album, and they’ve been festival favourites ever since. This year they played to a packed auditorium at The Royal Concert Hall.
Following some sort of audio oversight, the quintet came on stage minus amplification. Undeterred, they took to the apron stage and embarked on a few minutes of totally unplugged delights. A confident opening anywhere – in a 2500 seat auditorium it was particularly impressive.
And impressive was very much the way things continued. The soft and harmonic My Oh My, from their freshly released fourth album, The Phosphorescent Blues, opened the properly amplified set; leading straight into the fast-paced Boll Weavill.
Their roots may be Bluegrass but something increasingly complex has been growing from those roots. With Chris Thile’s virtuoso mandolin leading the sound Punch Brothers are far more than a string band with an edge, they’re a string band with as many facets as the most spectacularly cut gem. There was no shortage of contrasts as they continued to provide offerings from the new album along with more familiar tracks from the earlier releases. Movement and Location leaves the senses reeling with its dizzying combination of driving, train-like rhythm and ethereal vocals. I Blew It Off and Familiarity both delight with their Beach Boy-esque vocals, and Chris Thile’s skill as a story teller fascinates in Next To The Trash, the sexually charged Magnet, and Julep‘s metronomic dreams.
The music fascinates just as much as the song content. Lightning fast pace changes and improvisations that seem to emerge from sheer instinct elicit delighted gasps from their audience; all the while the bricks and mortar business of simply playing and supporting the melody is flawless. On double bass Paul Kowert keeps it all together perfectly, a fact highlighted when the double bass is moved to centre stage for a treatment of Debussy’s Passepied. He’s also just as likely to let fly a mind blowing solo. Chris Eldridge on guitar can just as happily be quiet and precise as big and bold; Gabe Witcher’s fiddle builds atmospheres when needed, or sets a blinding pace in full bluegrass mode. (Wayside) Back In Time being a prime example, and also the way Noam Pikelny’s banjo is the perfect partner to Chris Thile’s incredible mandolin playing. The man seems possessed by his music – every note a contortion of his body and soul.
One almost guaranteed way to charm a Celtic Connections audience, though, is with the unaccompanied human voice. Punch Brothers (along with Marcus Mumford) recorded The Auld Triangle for the Cohen Brother’s movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Gathered around a single microphone they repeated the performance to tumultuous applause.
A few years ago Punch Brothers set out to take Bluegrass somewhere new; somewhere that combined the energy and blinding fast improvisation of bluegrass with something more structured, something that instead of playing a tune, plays with a theme and takes the listener on an unexpected journey. The journey enjoyed by the Glasgow audience on Friday was breath taking.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The Phosphorescent Blues is out now: Order via Amazon