Five quick thoughts on Punch Brothers' concert Tuesday at the Southern Theatre:
(1) Chris Thile is a very special musician. The mandolin man, whose brain is the engine behind Punch Brothers, embodies the collision of seemingly every characteristic that makes music wonderful. He is a wizard with his instrument. He sings with just as much virtuosic beauty. He understands how to get under the hood and tinker with a song's inner workings until it taps into the pleasure centers. He flaunts his skills shamelessly, but he's just as good at holding back as letting loose, and he never lets noodling stand in as an unworthy substitute for gorgeously conceived arrangements. He is obviously a careful student of genres and musical traditions — bluegrass, classical, jazz, rock, pop, blues, country, Celtic folk music, avant-garde composition — but he disregards their rules almost entirely; his enthusiasm for music knows no bounds, so neither do his songs. Watching Thile and his bandmates demonstrate these qualities was a joy and a privilege.
(2) I wasn't the only one having a good time. Thile spent the full two-hour, 22-song set grinning with glee, usually dancing with furious passion in an eminently nerdy manner, often raising his mandolin skyward as if he were Eddie Van Halen, occasionally greeting the crowd with a hearty "Ahoy!" His guileless smile reminded me of Travis Morrison from The Dismemberment Plan, another pantheon-level talent prone to mixing and matching sounds without regard to convention.
(3) Thile deserves heaps of credit for Punch Brothers, but of course the band wouldn't work unless the other four guys were immensely talented and fully bought-in. Gabe Witcher made his fiddle scream, whimper and sigh. Noam Pikelny wrought scraping rawness and sparkling beauty from his banjo. Chris Eldridge played with power, flair and brave humility. Paul Kowert's firm foundation was just loose enough to breathe, imbuing the low end with melodious touch (particularly on their reconstruction of Radiohead's "Kid A," among the most incredible musical experiences of my life) and yanking the upright bass into a squealingly high register I didn't think was possible. They all could sing; they all could shred.
(4) There was genuine camaraderie between the band and the crowd too, and not the nauseating hero-worship that got in the way of Jeff Mangum's show at the Southern last month. The applause was rampant, and the Punch Brothers were feeding off it. They seemed to have real love for this city too. They started with their cover of Josh Ritter's Christopher Columbus-repping "Another New World" and later sang the praises of the Southern, which Pikelny cited as "the first place we went to and opened up our sound." After Thile exclaimed, "You Columbus people are just awesome, you know that?" an endearing/embarrassing "O-H! I-O!" chant broke out. Thile politely endured the outpouring and took the opportunity to poke fun at the pig-imitating "Sooie!" cheers they encountered in Arkansas.
(5) The ornate and old-timey Southern was indeed a perfect fit for Punch Brothers, even if the band deserves to be playing in much larger theaters. One nice aspect of the intimate size was the ability to play unplugged for the four-song encore. With the amplification removed, the group's storytelling skills came to the fore. This was especially apparent in closing number "Moonshiner," a traditional from the recent Ahoy! EP. As a lovely minimal arrangement sprung up around Thile's strums, he told an ancient tale in gleaming falsetto, capturing the spirit of those centuries-old singalongs without even grazing the Cold Mountain exploitation vibe that bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers rode to superstardom. Maybe if all the Punch Brothers songs were like that, it would start to feel like a gimmick. But having already covered so much ground with so much breathless enthusiasm, this felt earned — yet another tradition preserved, embraced and evolved.