THE PUNCH BROTHERS
MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE
SATURDAY AUGUST 13, 2016
A few years ago my son, a teenager at the time, accused me of tricking him into liking country music when I took him to a Ryan Adams show. His stereotyped view of country music was completely shattered and he realised he could get into country music through Adams, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and others. A couple of years ago he even went to the Americana Music Festival.
The same conversion might have happened on Saturday to anyone who went along to the Punch Brothers with preconceived notions of what bluegrass is. Here, an ostensibly ‘bluegrass’ group of five exceptionally accomplished musicians took that genre and completely turn it on its head. While their roots are in the past the music is definitely of the moment.
The program ranged from Debussy to Radiohead and Josh Ritter and, of course, their own originals. It is difficult to imagine that we will see any selection more diverse, performed with more virtuosity this year.
After witnessing this marvellous, near two-hour performance you might also think that the word ‘eclectic’ was coined just for them. While they featured seven songs from their latest album The Phosphorescent Blues, they also included a song from their new EP The Wireless, along with their interpretations of other songs.
Huddled around a single microphone in the middle of the stage, with red curtains as a backdrop, the Punch Brothers recaptured the atmosphere of how some of their musical heroes might have performed and recorded in the past. The acoustics of the Recital Centre, replete with its jutting wooden sections, were perfect for such an ensemble.
It is easy to understand why Chris Thile has been chosen as the new host of A Prairie Home Companion (starting in October). Apart from his distinctive voice and expert mandolin playing, he quickly got the Melbourne audience on side by not only praising the city’s reputation as a coffee capital but also reciting the names of numerous cafes. His love of the city became a recurring theme.
Banjo player Noam Pikelny could easily fill in for Thile on A Prairie Home Companion if needed. His dry sense of humour was employed to great effect several times, especially introducing Debussy’s ‘Passepied,’ originally written for piano and now transposed for strings, though Pikelny would have you believe Debussy wrote it for banjo!
Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar and Paul Kowert on double bass offered superb support, occasionally adding harmony vocals and showing their own virtuosity when given the opportunity. It is a well-honed ensemble where everyone is in total sync. In fact, all five musicians make their playing look so easy you tend to forget just how accomplished they are, individually and collectively. Their playing resonated long after the show had finished.
The Punch Brothers stunning performance will surely rank as one of the best of this year.