“Good luck,” Chris Thile said.
These final words came at the end of a powerful encore on the Cincinnati stop of the American Acoustic Tour, in which nine musicians – the members of Punch Brothers and I’m With Her and guitarist Julian Lage – performed a dichotomous, two-song encore that began with a bursting-with-joy version of Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and concluded with the melancholic strains of the Brothers’ “This is the Song (Good Luck).”
It was the end of nearly three hours of music — delivered in sets of 70 and 100 minutes, respectively — in which the bands played together and alone and in various combinations and took the nearly full Taft Theater and its close-listening audience on a tour through the power of music and the human voice. Not only acoustic, this show was unplugged – fiddles, guitars, mandolins, banjos, basses were not tethered by cords; they were channeled through center-stage mics – no amps allowed.
The result was breathtaking. And the audience sat silently rapt through it all, exploding into cheers only as songs ended and after particularly powerful solos. Concertgoers knew the nuances of these performances were important.
This was a low-frills presentation. A large, beige backdrop touted the tour’s title and the players played under minimal lighting and engaged in understated, but sincere, banter, which showed they were beyond happy to be where they were, with whom they were with and doing what they were doing.
The nine musicians spent the final 55 minutes of the show sharing the spotlight, sometimes playing in a nonet, other times in various combinations while colleagues sat in chairs on either side of the stage, taking in the show like the fans they were. A staggering run of performances included the entire group playing Thile’s hilarious and timely “Comey’s Waltz;” a jaw-dropping rendition of the Beatles’s “Julia” with Thile, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz singing tender harmonies while fiddlers Sara Watkins and Gabe Witcher added plaintive violin melodies; and other traditional and original numbers that seemed designed to ease the tension after a day in which America was rocked by neo-Nazi terrorism in the South.
This show-closing segment segued directly out of Punch Brothers’ 45-minute, second-half-opening performance in which the quintet gathered around the mics to share their unique take on bluegrass music. Dressed in various versions of office attire — jackets, ties, vests, smart shoes — the Brothers oozed virtuosity whether they were reinterpreting Debussy’s “Passepied” or inserting jazzy riffs into the proceedings with original numbers such as “Julep.”
Although Thile is the clear ringmaster, he never dominates his Brothers and together they create a family-style performance that takes bluegrass to places it’s never been, while—and this is the truly amazing part—never straying too far from its home base.
All told they delivered a powerhouse demonstration that, because of the setting in which it occurred, was not the highlight of the evening. That honor belongs to I’m With Her, the trio of Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan, which formed spontaneously in 2015 to open for the Punch Brothers. After his single-song, solo performance, Punch Brother and banjoist extraordinaire Noam Pikelny — looking like he’d just woken up with hair on end, a wrinkled jacket and tie askew — introduced I’m With Her as the best band going for his money and they lived up to the lofty billing.
Resplendent in floor-length, black dresses, the Americana supergroup sang like sisters, with Watkins’ willowy rasp, Jarosz’s smooth alto and O’Donovan’s confident whisper-to-wail blending to create on instrument that raised skin and neck hair early and often during their 40-minute showcase.
Watkins and O’Donovan are pregnant — with children and songs — and the band debuted new tracks to be included on a forthcoming album. The set included the title track from their new EP, Little Lies, and well-chosen covers like Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia” and John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters.” They all played guitar — with Watkins alternating on fiddle and Jarosz also playing mandolin and banjo — and switched off on lead vocals.
Brothers bassist Paul Kowert made I’m With Her a quartet, adding a bubbly bottom end to the final song that lead to a short, 20-minute break before the headliners took over. This was rewarded with an exuberant standing ovation from the audience and gigantic smiles from the performers.
Pikelny’s slot was the capper on a rotating 30-minute, opening sequence that began with Thile, Lage, O’Donovan and Jarosz kicking things off sweetly with the first of many awe-inspiring pieces that would follow and ran through Watkins leading a large grouping through her own “Young in All the Wrong Ways” and featured 29-year-old Lage – performing alone – building the foundation of a reputation that will one day place him alongside the likes of Tommy Emmanuel and Leo Kottke on the Mount Rushmore of acoustic pickers.
Each of these musicians and bands could easily carry a show on their own. But they’re stronger together. And together, they carried some 2,500 music lovers to a high plane only rarely attained — a state of contentment where nothing outside the happenings at hand matters and where the problems of a bleak world disappear, if only temporarily.