Punch Brothers delivered a musical experience nothing short of transcendent to a packed crowd at The Civic Theatre Thursday evening (8/27). Although the band’s instrumentation consists of acoustic instruments typically associated with bluegrass (mandolin, banjo, fiddle. upright bass and acoustic guitar), the group pushes the limits of acoustic music to wildly exciting places. In the hands of the superhuman musicians of Punch Brothers, these instruments do everything from cover Radiohead songs to interpret obscure classical compositions while also working together to craft some truly incredible original songs.
Punch Brothers was formed by singer/mandolin player Chris Thile in 2007 after the dissolution of his former band, the popular folk/bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek. Thile, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, assembled a supergroup of musicians culled from bluegrass royalty (including The Infamous Stringdusters and Leftover Salmon) to push the genre to more progressive places and experiment with his own songwriting. The band’s most recent album, The Phosphorescent Blues, saw them team with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett for some of their most ambitious compositions to date.
The band kicked off the night at The Civic with “My Oh My,” showing its ability to effortlessly shift from foot-stomping ruckus to tear-jerking melancholy all within the same song. The members of the band seemed to communicate on another level as they subtly changed tempos and followed one another into unexplored territories with brief and astounding improvisations. “Boll Weevil” gave the band its first chance of the night to really cut loose, sending the crowd into a frenzy as folks pounded on the hollow floor of the Civic to add their own percussion. The 10-minute suite “Familiarity” began quietly but built to more than one explosive climax before settling down into some haunting vocal harmonies.
The band introduced classical piano piece “Passepied” as part of its “outreach program for dead Romantic composers” before proceeding to display an uncanny ability to feed off one another’s energy. The band gathered center stage around a single microphone for an a capella rendition of the Irish standard “The Auld Triangle,” which was featured prominently in the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis (the band worked extensively on the soundtrack for the film). The night wrapped with the emotionally powerful “Little Lights” and Thile leading the crowd to sing along with the hypnotic refrain.
Throughout the night, Thile was a consummate frontman as he engaged with the crowd and cracked jokes between songs. The energy from the crowd was palpable and Thile remarked that there’s no better place to play music than New Orleans (I’ll have to agree). It took three years for the band to return to New Orleans after its 2012 show at the tiny Parish Room at the House of Blues; hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years to see them in our city again.