Punch Brothers were so enthused by the beauty and sound of the Southern Theatre, the quintet eschewed amps and mics, preferring to play their unplugged encore at the front of the stage with only the houselights to guide them.
There was still plenty of gas left in the tank as the band tore through an instrumental before engaging the audience to help out on “Rye Whiskey” to bring the career-spanning, barn-burning, two-hour concert to an intoxicating close after what seemed to be only 75 minutes or so.
Even by the Punch Brothers’ high standards, the band’s March 20 show in Columbus was exceptional and featured a setlist that spurned esoterica for pure musicianship and songcraft.
Dressed in suits of various levels of formality, from jackets to vests and shirtsleeves, and arrayed on a sparsely appointed stage with just a couple of tables to hold their drinks, a stool for bassist Paul Kowert’s bow and two microphones, the group nodded to 2018’s All Ashore with a large backdrop depicting silhouetted ship masts as the only eye candy. Well, that and frontman Chris Thile, who, when the music moves him, resembles one of those fan-powered stick figures that billows and rocks in front of storefronts seeking customers. Red socks peeked out from his grey trousers, in what seemed a silent homage to Garrison Keillor, the host Thile replaced on the public-radio program formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher were obviously moving mandolinist/vocalist Thile on this evening, as he hopped on one leg, crouched down low to look up at his bandmates with an exaggerated frown that curled in to a diabolical smile and contorted his body in herky-jerky fashion as he picked out notes – all perfectly placed, none muffed.
The vocals, too, were flawless, as Thile held falsetto cries for insane periods of time, spat out rapid-fire words in a tenor voice and harmonized with his bandmates in twos, threes, fours and – occasionally, as in once – fives, when the reticent Pikelny joined him on his mic.
The band went back to their beginnings with the second movement of “The Blind Leading the Blind” from its debut, Punch; nodded to Claude Debussy on “Passepied,” which Pikelny introduced by saying, “you get to hear the five of us doing the work of one musician;” and played a significant chunk of All Ashore,from the bluegrassical instrumental “Three Dots and a Dash” to the political commentary of “It’s All Part of the Plan” to the rock ‘n’ roll attitude of “The Angel of Doubt.”
The precision in Punch Brothers’ performances continues to stagger, even more than a decade in to their career, as the band zigs and zags through various stylistic landscapes, stops on any number of onstage dimes, accelerates from zero to 60 in nanoseconds and demonstrates time and time again that intricate ensemble playing is typically much more effective than even the most evocative solo.
Singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane kicked things off with a wildly entertaining, 35-minute set that found him sitting at a piano and playing stark, insightful songs from his Book of Travelers album, inspired by his cross-country train trip in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. These were interspersed with comical numbers based on tweets and Craig’s List ads, such as the rambunctious and hilarious “Neurotic and Lonely.” Kahane also grabbed an electric guitar for “Ambassador,” a song about Los Angeles’ famed, now-demolished hotel, from the perspective of a veteran security guard.
Kahane said the Punch Brothers are one of the only bands that regularly asks him to join them on tour, presumably “because my chords are so weird.” Another reason may be the Punch Brothers are one of only a few groups that wouldn’t be blown off the stage by this impossibly intriguing, complex performer. l S