Although the weather gods could not be appeased Thursday night by the sounds of bluegrass (as banjo player Noam Pikelny joked), the crowds certainly were as the Punch Brothers put on a striking performance at Celebrate Brooklyn under heavy rain and lightning.
Playing selections from their latest album “The Phosphorescent Blues”, the band played with an incomparable warmth and energy, effortlessly weaving through flawless vocal harmonies and virtuoso instrumentals. Always-entertaining lead singer and mandolin player Chris Thile took every opportunity to dance around, most notably during “Next to the Trash” where Thile stumbled around on stage as if he were conducting an orchestra while drunk.
Thile’s singing was unsurprisingly brilliant, stretching the upper and lower limits of his range without ever compromising his intonation or personality; his voice, like his mandolin, was bright and vibrant. Especially beautiful was his take on Debussy’s “Passepied”, which the audience reacted to by wooing, cheering, and screaming - a reaction rarely heard during classical performances.
At times it seemed like the storm itself was a part of the group: during “Familiarity,” lightning struck just as the band started an electrifying new section. While the storm refused to give out, the energy of the crowd only grew, with hundreds of people singing along and waving their colorful umbrellas to “The Auld Triangle”. Also memorable was Paul Kowert’s bowed intro to “Flippen”, where he played such high notes that one could have mistaken his double bass for a violin. (The band also included Chris Eldridge on guitar and Gabe Witcher on violin.)
The Punch Brothers represent a new type of band, one with a deep understanding of the traditions of bluegrass, while at the same time creating music that's both accessible and stimulating. They can execute the most intricate musical concepts (for instance, the use of polyrhythms in “Movement and Location”), and still manage to make the audience dance. Even in the rain.
(Photos Courtesy of Tom McCaffrey)