Punch Brothers Pack a Punch in Tucson, AZ – 13 April 2015

Punch Brothers proved to the crowd at Tuscon just why they're one of the most celebrated bands in modern bluegrass.
Gabriel Kahane

Punch Brothers are well known for their mastercraft levels of musicianship, steeped deep within the American bluegrass and folk scene but imbued with a far-reaching chameleonesque nature to the craft behind their syncopation. The group embraces both the creative and technical sides of music making at large. One thing the quintet has always displayed alongside these musical chops is a love of prime showmanship. During their 13 April performance at the Rialto Theatre in Tuscon, Arizona, when the band wasn’t delivering the next song on their varied set — an amalgamation of tracks from off of their latest album, The Phosphorescent Blues, mixed together nicely with some covers and past hits like the best bowl of greens — they were engaging directly with the crowd. Bringing each and every audience member within the historic Rialto Theatre on a ride through their set ensemble for the first time, it’s inarguable to say that they defined themselves that night as a band to behold to an entirely new crowd, with their infectious energy and euphonic genius.

By the end of the show, the band seemed to be just as thankful as the audience for having them. Their encore set comprised of a cover of “Wayside/Back in Time” by Gillian Welch and Phosphorescent Blues track “Little Lights”, the latter of which was collectively carried by the audience throughout the final chorus, filling the theatre with a mesmerizing vocal even greater in scope and feeling than the studio version of the song, for which the band outsourced recorded fan vocals for prior to the release of The Phosphorescent Blues earlier this year. Come set’s end, the collective bowed, with frontman and mandolinist Chris Thile remarking enthusiastically to the pleasantly raucous audience that Tucson had one of the best crowds they’d had throughout their spring tour, thanking them for their presence. Throughout their set, this was a fact that was oft repeated by Thile and the rest of the group, with banjoist Noam Pikelny remarking to fans asking what’d taken so long for them to get to Tucson that maybe it was to prepare for such a crowd.

It was in no small part thanks to the introduction and subsequent performances of opening act Gabriel Kahane that the audience’s appetite was whet for the Punch Brothers, however. With profound astuteness towards offbeat chromatics and harmonic interests, Kahane worked the crowd with songs equal parts deeply introspective and downright hilarious like “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)”, which dares to inquire, “Why do villains always live in houses made by modernist masters?” in reference to action blockbuster malefactors of old. Elsewhere, Kahane attached the content of a desperate Craigslist dating ad to the spastically syncopated composition of “Craigslistlieder”, also providing more serious numbers, such as his opening performance of “Winter Song”, along the way.

During intermission, lobby passersby reacted to Kahane’s performance rather warmly amongst one another, some relating him to a new age Ben Folds, and with his knack for off-kilter thought processes developing into songs as beautiful as they are sardonic, there’s no doubting why comparisons to a fellow piano virtuoso came up and about. Ultimately, Kahane comes with his own (sometimes) unadulterated flavor and substance, however, and whether he was working the lobby, conversing with new fans and providing merchandise autographs, or performing up on the Rialto stage prior to the coming of the Punch Brothers, he offered himself fully to the audience in an ebulliently memorable manner.

Something that related Kahane straight to the Punch Brothers, other than their adept musicality, is a love of post-apocalyptic jams. The aforementioned “Winter Song”, from Where Are the Arms, has consistently been labeled by Kahane as a “post-apocalyptic blizzard jam”, whereas the Punch Brothers were quick to recall their cult hit “Boll Weevil” as a “traditional Americana flavored post-apocalyptic number” on their own regards. The latter song was easily one of the night’s highlights, featuring a jam from the quintet that rocked the house so hard that hundreds upon hundreds of fans throughout the auditorium were thunderously clapping along to the beat with breakneck intensity. It was in that moment that Thile proved himself to the Tucsonian crowd to be an indelible frontman, gyrating in a mad flurry to the furious picking of his mandolin, working the stage and the hundreds in attendance with relative ease due to his energetic presence.

Thile wasn’t the only member of the band to step out and make his presence truly known during their Rialto set, however. Arguably, each member had their moment to shine during the three and a half hour long event, with bassist Paul Kowert in particular holding his own with the lower end of their sound, producing stage-filling melodies and rhythmic breaks that really drove the entire production home. The band also had a collectively powerful moment on a performance of their song from Inside Llewyn Davis, “The Auld Triangle”, this time dropping all manner of instrumentation to deliver a totally a cappella number worthy of the tremendous applause it had received thereafter. The audience participation reciting the classic folk song rivaled that of closer “Little Lights” in passion, making for the most memorable moment that the concert had to offer.

Ultimately, the Punch Brothers lived up to their name, packing a musical punch to the Rialto Theatre upon their first visit to Tucson. This reviewer is amongst the droves who are hoping that the band returns much sooner than later — let’s not make it another 9 years — and perhaps they just may, on the glow-in-the-dark carousel horse that Thile so strongly insisted was stalking him just to the side of the stage, away from the audience’s eyes.

Splash and thumbnail images of Punch Brothers by Brantley Gutierrez.

RATING 8 / 10