December 9th, 2012 – The Boulder Theater
Every once in a great while, you go to a show, and come away with a sense of positive eubilation. Sometimes it’s the perfect blend of intoxication and music—lost into a meaningful and moving haze. Others, it’s the circumstances–what happened before, or after. And still others, that ebullition can only be attributed to the musicianship and energy of the performers.
Of these, Punch Brothers this evening in Boulder was overwhelmingly the last. Stone sober, and with a wonderful companion but certainly no surrounding circumstances of note, I’m still aglow with the sense of having a seen a SHOW tonight.
What kind of show? Punch Brothers bills as a bluegrass band. But, in truth, tonight’s performance was more that of seeing Yo Yo Ma perform a concerto than a raucous bluegrass band. Consider the set design: five stands with microphones (four across and one behind), set atop two large area rugs (oriental in style–possibly the venue’s), one banjo, and black curtains behind. No stage monitors, no amps, no racks of guitars–in fact, nothing more than the microphones to distract from the musicians.
When you see a symphony (at Carnegie Hall, say), you wear formal wear, and the musicians wear formal wear. When you see Punch Brothers, you wear a down jacket (this being December in Colorado, after all), and Punch Brothers wear coordinated, and exceptionally well-tailored suits. The crowd is respectful–the band pays it back in kind.
They walk on stage and play music for two hours straight. They’re present, and articulate–clearly in possession of their faculties.
And, as you watch, you become keenly aware that you’re witnessing greatness. These five (three in particular, though I won’t say who) are not merely great at their instruments. More than that–Thile in particular is wildly talented at his instrument. He’s not merely playing it as others have–he’s pushing the boundaries of the instrument, of its sounds, of its style–not just the limits of technical precision and speed, but of what defines the instrument, and how it’s played.
And, more about Chris Thile. He’s a consummate performer. He establishes instant rapport with the crowd–and exudes pure joy in playing his mandolin. At times he conjures David Byrne, as he dances and plays on stage. Each song, it seems, has its own unique motion and moves. He croons into the microphone, pantomimes the actions of the song, gives voices to the characters in his songs.
I’m grasping at straws to describe the scene, and my current elation. Suffice to say, if you have the opportunity, go.
There’s much to like–and much to say–about Punch Brothers. Their new EP (“Ahoy!”) is a delight. But to see them live–ah! Such rapture!
(I’m too exhausted to proofread this tonight–and supposed to leave to ski in seven hours. Forgive me my typos and poorly arranged thoughts!)