Punch Brothers in Tahoe onstage: Impressive for its musical scope and mastery
Seeing a band you love live for the first time is always a combination of excitement and anxiousness. It is just a studio band which can’t capture the magic in a live setting? Does it engage the audience or treat it like an obligation to their artistry? Will it meet the expectations you have? The Punch Brothers took the stage March 28 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe with the musicianship and showmanship to delightfully exceeded this reporter’s expectations.
First off, the Punch Brothers are not a bluegrass band. Though most of its members (mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny, violinist Gabe Witcher, and stand-up bassist Paul Kowert) have a background in bluegrass music, they are their own entity. The Punch Brothers craft songs that range from orchestral pop to anthemic ballads to fluttering instrumentals. They are musicians who can accomplish whatever they put their fingers to, and damn fine musicians at that. How many bands can seamlessly interweave songs by French composer Claude Debussy, alt-country heroine Gillian Welch and sonic pioneers Radiohead into a 90-minute concert? The Punch Brothers did Saturday night.
The gentleman strolled onto the stage looking dapper in suits, ties and vests, and after frontman Chris Thile made a crack about the beautiful surroundings in Tahoe, launched into the warm “My Oh My” off the latest album, “Phosphorescent Blues.” After the song’s harmonious end had settled, they immediately ripped into the scorching romp of “Boll Weevil” that got fans whooping and clapping along. Thile and company are much more their bluegrass roots but they can shred just as hard, if not harder, than the next string band.
The band leaned heavily on its most recent material from “Phosphorescent Blues” and 2012’s “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” but it made sense as these two albums best represent the diverse sound the Punch Brothers have right now. “This Girl” from “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” was poppy and lustfully alive as Thile skipped around stage, while “Julep” from “Phosphorescent Blues” was restrained elegance. The driving instrumental “Flippen” flitted along like a butterfly, while the band’s cover of Debussy’s “Passepied” picked along like a curious mouse. The band can hit all points on the musical and emotional spectrum and do it with conviction.
Seeing the band bring these songs to life in concert shows solidifies how accomplished these musicians are. Thile’s vocals are even more pristine and effervescent than on record and the slight-of-hand picking of Eldridge and Pikelny are a sight to see. Kowert masterfully held down bass duties while introducing a bow to the mix every so often and Witcher played both violin and percussion parts, sometimes both in the same song.
Thile is a natural frontman and was very much at home in front of the crowd. He couldn’t help but dance and sway along to the music, all the while chatting up the audience about ski conditions in Tahoe. The band also knows the usefulness of a good joke and Pikelny introduced their Debussy cover by deadpanning “he died tragically in the sense that he did not live long enough to hear us play it.”
The band’s show was impressive for its musical scope and mastery, but its most impressive feat of the night came when they decided to stack the unlikely duo of Radiohead and Gillian Welch together. Radiohead’s “Kid A” is a very delicate electronic pulse and the band was able to translate those electronic blips into a beautiful string instrumental that sounded like an experimental orchestra. As the band crescendoed into a swirling freakout, they turned the song on a hair into a blazing bluegrass rendition of Welch’s lazy country-soul song “Wayside Back In Time.” The musical precision to change gears like that was magnificent and the musical ability to transform those songs into something unique was astounding.
That moment encapsulates the stunningness of the Punch Brothers and why its South Shore Room show on Saturday night exceeded anything I or the audience could have expected.
ABOUT Garrett Bethmann
Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.
Tickets are on sale now for the first three concerts of the Carson Valley Inn Summer Concert Series:
June 6th - CMT Next Women featuring Tanya Tucker with Aubrie Sellers
June 26th - Charlie Daniels Band
August 19th - Trace Adkins
Click here for tickets http://bit.ly/2020CVIConcertSeries
We miss you all and can't wait to see you back in the venue enjoying some live music again, as soon as it is safe to do so! In the meantime thank you for being patient with us as we sort out upcoming shows dates. We appreciate your continuous support! 🧡