Read: A Night with the Punch Brothers – March 6, 2015

Punch Brothers, House of Blues Boston - March 6, 2015. © Meredith Nierman/WGBH

Punch Brothers, House of Blues Boston – March 6, 2015. © Meredith Nierman/WGBH


A few different things popped into my head while walking home after the Punch Brothers concert on Friday night. Those things were railroads, fireflies, porch swings, and trap doors. Those first three fit well into the Punch Brothers’ universe, but you’re probably scratching your head about that fourth thing: “A trap door?! How so?”. The Punch Brothers have mastered the art of composing (truly composing) seemingly quick, light, accessible bluegrass-tinged pop songs, with a caveat – almost all of their songs have a trap door, a directional turn that turns the song’s initial musical strain on its head, things move sideways. They do this effortlessly and with absolute confidence, it’s something that can’t be taught. This trap door, those new musical directions that they effortlessly go in, is the difference between them and the rest of the musical world – the Punch Brothers are going that extra mile and have the chops to do so.

The first notes I wrote down at the beginning of the show read: “meticulously sprawling harmonious fun – this sounds as if I should be served a big barrel drink at a bar in The Shire”. For those who want to listen at home, check out the song “My Oh My” off the Punch Brothers’ latest album “The Phosphorescent Blues”. You’ll find this song starts simple, builds a bit and then takes a turn you weren’t expecting. The chorus here is a great example of the “trap door” I spoke of – a quiet turn in the song that ends up shaping the song into a new mold. Seeing them perform this live was a reminder that the best bands aren’t the ones with the most lights or the biggest set up. The best bands are the ones that work the best together and complement each other. Their second song of the night, the traditional “Boll Weevil” is a great example of their railroad, foot-stomping, porch swing tendencies. “Boll Weevil” sounds as if it was written during the Dust Bowl, but it’s possible that it was written even earlier. The third song of the night was a Chris Thile breakdown called “Watch ‘at”. Another prime example of their overqualified musical chops. Some particular notes I had for this one were “sounds like speed metal filled with seamless call & answers. Thile’s mandolin sounds like glass hitting steel” – listen and you’ll understand why. The Punch Brothers executed this song so fast and smoothly that it sounded as if they were making it up on the spot like watching musicians from the future with ESP playing for the first time. “Watch ‘at” has a blazing melody and really got the crowd in the right mindset to enjoy the rest of night.

I won’t bore you and recap every song that was played, instead I’ll be biased and Iist the moments that I feel TRULY feel captured the essence of the Punch Brothers and of the night.

They are:

“Familiarity” – This is a great example of the Punch Brothers’ range. “Familiarity” feels as if it started a minute before you started listening, like you have to run beside a train in order to catch up to it. It’s great example of their musical abilities and wonderful ability to take a song in unexpected directions. “Familiarity” is complete with dramatic violin strikes, blazing mandolin, and a number of beautiful Beach Boys-like breakdowns. Chris Thile describes “Familiarity” as “an adventure…a beast with three heads”. It rings true.

“Passepied (Debussy)” – If I had to pick one song that audibly describes the Punch Brothers’ band mentality it would be this song – a song they didn’t write. This piece was originally transcribed for piano by Claude Debussy around 1900. “Passepied” shows the Punch Brothers’ overarching attitude because ALL OF THEM are working together to complete this beautiful piece of work, a piece that’s bigger than just one instrument. All are chipping in, melodically backing each other up and working towards that greater good of “the music”.

“Through the Bottom of the Glass” – A traditional song that really helped the crowd enjoy the night and live in the moment – something the Punch Brothers are striving for. This is a fun, waltz-y traditional song about heartbreak. Their rendition was complete with an impressive, and comical bass scale climb by Paul Kowertz. Some side notes I wrote to myself were: “Train hoppers, moonshine, barber shop quartets”. All of these inhabit the this songs’ world.

“I Blew It Off” – A smooth, summer-y pop song filtered through their own vocal and melodic tendencies. This song really showcases how accessible and modern the Punch Brothers can be. Self-described by Chris Thile as “Four chords and the truth”. Take a listen.

“Movement and Location” – This song starts similar to “Familiarity” – it also feels as if it started a minute ago. “Movement and Location” is a testament to the Punch Brothers’ ability to create modern music through their own bluegrass, classical leanings. Unbelievably, this song was inspired by Chicago Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux and his simple approach to pitching (!).

“The Auld Triangle” – This was the most outstanding moment of the night (according to me). All five Punch Brothers put down their instruments and gathered around an old microphone in the middle of the stage. They formed a circle, put their arms on each shoulders, and performed a rendition of the Irish ballad “The Auld Triangle”. This was a moment you don’t see at every concert. The song was performed in an almost barber shop quartet fashion, with Thile singing the verses alone, and then the four members stepping in on the choruses. This was a very special moment – another way the Punch Brothers bring you into their world through their live performance.

“Kid A” – Another example of how much diversity the Punch Brothers have. This Radiohead cover was a song they added to their repertoire after they had performed an all-Radiohead show. “Kid A” shows how innovative they can be with their instruments. If you listen to the original song you’ll wonder how one would (and could) attempt to cover that song. Also similarly to “Movement and Location”, this is an example of modern music through their bluegrass-tinged filter. They have gone that extra mile and made “Kid A” uniquely their own.

“Little Lights” – After listening to Front Row Boston’s interview with Chris Thile and Gabe Witcher from earlier in the night, this song is a fitting one to end the night on (and their new album). The name “Little Lights”, and “The Phosphorescent Blues” is a reference to us, the audience, and the light our cell phones & devices emit around us – that blue orb that hovers around us when we’re checking our e-mail, taking a picture or doing something that’s taking us out of the moment. “Little Lights” is a song that forces you to be in the moment. It’s slower paced and Chris Thile even encouraged that the audience sing along with him. This was a moment similar to “the Auld Triangle” – you’re forced to perk up and (more importantly WANT to) take note of what’s happening in front of you.

It’s telling that the Punch Brothers get their name from a Mark Twain story about a man who gets a melody stuck in his head that causes his demise. A constant adage the Brothers are wary of regarding music (and life) is “be careful what you feed yourself”. This comes through in their live performance and on their latest album. The Punch Brothers wrestle with the idea of isolation caused by our devices, a common obstacle for all of us. We’re all trying to juggle and live in that weird, electronic reality prevalent just about anywhere – our commutes, our alarms that wake us up, our work e-mail that’s linked to our phone – it can be hard to live in the moment.

However, it’s worth it to block out 50 minutes of your day, put your devices on silent, place them on the other side of the room and watch this performance and listen to this record. And while you’re listening, try to restrain yourself from checking your phone, playing Candy Crush, and resist from turning your lights on & off in rapid succession like you’re at laser show – just calm down, take a breath, relax and listen – listen for enjoyment.