Never mind what the group appears to be, as their style transcends the limits of instrumental preferences.
Walking onto the stage at the Kentucky Theatre clad in suit jackets, vests, and dress slacks, Punch Brothers quickly asserted themselves with musicianship to match their keen sense of style.
Firing away with “Don’t Get Married Without Me” and “New York City” -- both selections from their latest release, Who’s Feeling Young Now? -- the group delivered the songs straight and to the point, opting out of expansiveness through improvisation.
Punch Brothers briefly departed material from their latest release by settling on “Next to the Trash”, but were again promoting the new record with “Flippen” (which, even though it was recorded for the new album, was a cover from Swedish group Väsen) and the title track.
Although unknown to the crowd, the remainder of the set would play out mostly like the beginning. The group would perform cuts from their newest release, sprinkle in a choice cover or material from an earlier release, and then find itself back on Who’s Feeling Young Now? for a brief moment. For anyone currently up-to-date on the group, there were to be no real surprises.
Sticking with the game plan, The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” (recorded by Thile and the band on How to Grow a Woman from the Ground) and “Alex” followed. The songs opened up more than earlier on in the set with Thile almost toying with the crowd, brilliantly sucking them in enough to wonder how he would find his way to the next transition.
Around the show’s midpoint Pikelny, who has become a modern day banjo torch bearer of sorts (along with funnyman Steve Martin), eulogized the recently departed Earl Scruggs for a few moments before the group launched into “Groundspeed”. For a band that’s that appears on the surface to be a bluegrass band, Scruggs’ tune was the closest it came to sounding purely like one.
But never mind what the group appears to be, as their style transcends the limits of instrumental preferences and favors the possibilities of a song and how effective that point can be delivered with virtuosity and a strict attention to detail and nuance. The group further loosened its tight grip on the songs and left room for exploring within “No Concern of Yours” and “Hundred Dollars”.
Thile quipped about the dangers of legitimate musicians finding themselves in karaoke bars and launched into the crowd-approved “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. With Pikelny’s banjo handling the keyboard parts, and Gabe Witcher’s fiddle handling the guitar solos, their prowess was clearly stated for those unfamiliar with the material thus far.
After scorching through Thile’s “Watch ’at Breakdown”, Pikelny gave the obligatory pleasantries regarding the evening’s opener, Jesca Hoop. She returned to the stage and joined for “Tulip” (one of her own songs that lacked recognition from the crowd) and “Soon or Never”. While “Tulip” was a sincere nod to Hoop’s songwriting talents, her vocals reinforcing “Soon or Never” were complimentary enough to make her trip to the stage well worth the time -- bringing to mind how fitting a female voice with the group truly is.
Once Hoop left the stage, the momentum built again by the explosively technical and equally poppy “Rye Whiskey”. Provoked by inquisitive members of the audience, Thile joked that the band’s clear Dixie cups weren’t filled with Bourbon, even despite the evening’s show being set in the heart of Kentucky.
Closing out the set proper with Radiohead’s “Kid A” seguing directly into Gillian Welch/David Rawlins-penned “Wayside/Back in Time,” the group crammed in a microcosm of the show in under ten minutes. It was clever arrangement, precise playing, and songs written by an outside source. While certainly upbeat, it’s a bit confusing why the band would close with a song by someone else when they had the crowd’s full attention; a moment to capitalize and feature their own material was sacrificed in favor of their affinity for another’s.
Returning for the encore, the group went from zero to top speed by launching into “Movement and Location”. Despite the fact that it seems rather tired rock cliché to highlight the encore of a performance, Thile and his band had worked the crowd into the peak of its collective attention.
With news of Levon Helm’s passing having already been announced, Punch Brothers’ provided yet another fitting tribute by closing out the night with “Ophelia”. It was almost to be expected, given the fact that the band has had the song in its repertoire for a few years, yet it was an appropriate sendoff. It was one that satisfied the newcomers and was welcomed by those already well initiated.
While the selection of covers certainly spanned the spectrum of the group’s collective abilities and interests, it’s worth noting just how much time it took out of the set. Although the covers and originals both achieved the desired “Hey, look what we can do as a string band” proclamation the band oftentimes finds itself tirelessly restating, the show disappointingly featured no material from their proper collective debut, Punch.