2012 has come to an abrupt, yet if you’re like me, welcomed, end, and in the great city of New York there is no shortage of things to do. When the Punch Brothers announced they were closing the year with a three-night run at Bowery Ballroom (the city’s best venue) I knew I had to be there. 1) Three shows, with a wide variety of setlist choices, covers, opening act shenanigans, etc, etc 2) Riding the coattails of their beautiful album Who’s Feeling Young Now? and road warrior mentality The Punch Brothers might just be the hottest band of 2012 (my official list will be out shortly) 3) These guys are so insanely talented and inspiring, I have to have a great excuse NOT to see them if they’re in town. Anytime they’re in town. ESPECIALLY if it’s a “special” ordeal…and we all know I’m a sucker for superlatives and spectacles.
The band took the stage relatively promptly at 10:07pm for a near two hour set that ran the gamut of the expected and the “expected unexpected.” The doozy of the evening (and subsequent nights to follow) was a vocal firework of a cover, “Surf’s Up” by the Beach Boys. Perhaps it’s not a deep cut, but, I consider myself a pretty big Beach Boys fan and I haven’t heard the song in years. I recalled the tune, but didn’t have the relationship with it I will from now on. Honestly, one of the great things about PB shows, they’ve introduced me to such a wide array of tunes I’d never discover otherwise, as well as, making me better appreciate some of the songs already in my catalogue.
I used the term vocal firework for their version of “Surf’s Up” because it kind of exploded everywhere. I mean this in the majestic sense, not the angry film critic sense. Vocally, the Punch Brothers are mostly a pretty reserved band, unless doing an obnoxious cover like Mclusky or the raging ending to Radiohead’s “2+2=5” (to name a few), but when doing “Surf’s Up” everyone sang. Even Noam. It was pretty neat, because I’d never seen them do anything of the sort. I just kind of sat there with my mouth ajar while Thile torched through the near comical falsetto parts, blending seamlessly with fiddle player Gabe Witchers’ more rustic Wilson voice (Dennis?) and, again, blossoming into a layered "sort of" five-part vocal harmony. I became even more warm and fuzzy with the energy and smiles the band displayed as Thile giddily raised his fist in the air saying, “Brian FUCKING WILSON!” to close the goat rodeo triumph. I would never ask for it, but it worked, so hurray for everyone that got to see this. Will it stay in future setlists?
The opening choice “Another New World” had a very theatrical beginning and was off their new EP, and opening greeting, Ahoy!, a little running gag through the three-nights run Thile used to pump up the crowd. Usually, the “Ahoys!” would come in rounds of three, gaining steam throughout each evening as the crowd became more and more self-aware. After all, with everything the Punch Brothers do for you, it’d be a shame to let them down on a simple call and response gesture.
The Punch Brothers seemed genuinely happy to be back home in New York. They’ve toured brutally “grueling” on the Oregon Trail scale. To which they sent some love to NYC by playing “New York City” and following it with the Strokes’ “The Heart Beats in its Cage” to which Thile said the songs, “belong together, always.” It’s hard not to be charmed by the dry banter.
Later on, while debuting Hunger Games soundtrack song “Dark Days” Thile and banjo player Noam “Pickles” Pikelny carried on a dialogue about what it means to “debut something” that would make even the healthiest of Christmas tree’s wilt. It ended with an emphatic high-five and one is glad to see all the touring hasn’t sucked the life out of a tight-knit band of (punch) brothers.
Just when Noam begins to speak, I start laughing. The guy has this ridiculously deceiving deep voice, and slow timing that slays me. He could read a book and I’d think it’s the greatest show ever. He serves as the perfect compliment to Thile’s nerdy professor meets Jude Law playing a (somewhat inebriated) spy-with-a-mandolin stage persona. It’s just a great compliment of guys with an off-the-chart chemistry. They jam enough that everyone gets their run by the end of the evening. Kind of like a team passing the ball around. Thile will often jostle back and forth from person to person giving subtle non-verbal cues as they hot potato their way through the jam. It’s mesmerizing. There is not a weak link amongst the group. They hold their own, and you get the idea working with Thile—they’d have to.
The encore began with Thile solo literally prancing, or in this case, I guess you’d say waltzing, through Bach’s “4th Movement G Minor Sonata.” This has always been one of my favorite things to see. I don’t know much about classical music, but when watching Thile play Bach on the mandolin, it seems like you’re not supposed to actually play Bach on the mandolin. It feels counterintuitive and facetious, but again, one of those moments during a Thile show when you can’t fathom there’s anyone else on the planet that could recreate what you’re watching. When you close your eyes, you can REALLY take in the acoustics at Bowery Ballroom during this classical ditty. Thile often steps away from the microphones when he does this, but this time it was loud, proud and a real testament to a brooding, confident, bluegrass-rock show.
I missed the Jeffrey Lewis opening set, but they brought him back out. Another shining example of how genuine these guys seems to be—they always bring out the opening act to cook up a little something special. I can’t recall a time when they didn’t. It seems like they find people they respect, want to work with, and have fun melding the exquisite pieces together. In this case, Jeffrey Lewis has a knack for cartoons and singing songs in an almost rap cadence. They brought out a screen for his transitioning comics, and the band stayed to the side in the dark, playing fast moving, eerie, bluegrass music while Lewis sang a song about a “creeping brain” to a series of overtly awesome drawings. It reminded me of a steroid infused version of the comics Tom Green used on his show. Hilarious, but really musical. Something I’d certainly love to see more of. Everyone in the band seemed so happy and side-spliten (past tense of side splitting?) when the stage lights came back on. Again, genuine and fun.
They closed the set away from the microphones with a delicate version of “Moonshiner” presented as one of the bands’ favorite Christmas songs (also available on Ahoy!). One could hear the floorboards creak when people’s weight shifted. It was delicate, precise and perfect. What a wondrous way to end a set…and to kick things off.
If you have tickets to the following two nights, you’re feeling pretty damn good right now.
Another New World (Josh Ritter cover)
New York City
The Heart Beats in its Cage (Strokes cover)
Song For a Young Queen (From “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”)
Down Along the Dixie Line (Gillian Welch cover)
Dark Days (Hunger Games Soundtrack)
New Chance Blues
Don’t Need No
Surf’s Up (Beach Boys cover)
Through the Bottom of the Glass (Seldom Scene cover)
The Blind Leaving the Blind: Third Movement
Movement and Location
4th Movement G Minor Sonata (Bach cover, Thile Solo)
The Creeping, Creeping Brain (Jeffrey Lewis cartoon-y song)