The Punch Brothers: Calvin Theatre, Northampton MA 2/15/13

How often do you hear bluegrass, Bach, and Radiohead played at the same show? The answer is never unless of course you are talking about the Punch Brothers. In an almost two hour show at the Northampton’s Calvin Theatre, the five piece band dazzled with a musically adventurous mix in which they melded classical, jazz, folk, and rock into their progressive bluegrass sound.

The Punch Brothers are a group of virtuoso musicians led by mandolin great Chris Thile, who first achieved prominence with the band, Nickel Creek. The group which also includes banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher and bassist Paul Kowert came together in 2006 to work on Thile’s “How To Grow a Woman from the Ground ” project.  Over time this extremely talented group of musicians have evolved into a cohesive unit with each member playing a vital role.

Taking the stage dressed in three-piece suits, the band launched into the bouncy “This Girl” off its third album,“Who’s Feeling Young Now?” Thile sang in a smooth tenor about a man who promises to restore his faith if God helps his love life. This is as close to a pop song as The Punch Brothers get, but beneath the surface sheen there was some amazing musical interplay going on between Thile and Witcher.

The band followed with the instrumental ”Flippen,” a bluegrass song by the Swedish folk band Vasen, which allowed each member to step in the spotlight and do some soloing. Another cover followed when the band tore into Jack White’s “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” rocking out in a way the Mumford & Sons could only dream off.

Throughout the evening the band switched styles with ease in a set that included everything from  the traditional foot stompin’sounds of “Rye Whiskey,” to the tin pan alley influenced “Patchwork Girlfriend” and the beautiful ballad “Missy.” Not to mention, a dead on cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” in which the group managed to duplicate high pitched electronic sounds on stringed instruments.

 And while this is a group who like to experiment with shifting rhythms and tempos, they also appreciate a good melody and can harmonize seamlessly.  A big part of the Punch Brothers’  appeal is they manage to make sophisticated, complex music both accessible and entertaining. Thile deserve a lot of credit for the later, as he is an engaging front-man, prone to breaking out in a shuffling dance and easily joking with the crowd.

After closing with the pulsating, “Movement and Location,” Thile took the stage alone, stepping away from the microphone and performed Bach’s “Sonata in G Minor” as the crowd watched on in silence.  He then welcomed the band back and they continued to play unamplified as Eldridge handled vocals on “ Through the Bottom of the Glass,” a song originally performed by his Father’s band, The Seldom Scene. This memorable night of music ended with Thile standing on the edge of the stage, playing the lovely traditional tune, “Moonshiner.” 

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