Perhaps the Start of a New Tradition

December 31st, 2012

Punch Brothers – The Bowery Ballroom – December 29, 2012

These things have to start somewhere. In absence of Patti Smith’s longstanding New Year’s Eve run at The Bowery Ballroom, on Saturday night Punch Brothers kicked off what we can only hope will become an annual three-night out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new run at the corner of Delancey and Bowery. With Chinese lanterns strung across the room and cozy lights above the stage, the mood was celebratory, as rhythmic “We want an encore!” clapping spontaneously broke out before the band even took the stage. This was an arena-rock-primed crowd for a bluegrass band: What gives?

When Chris Thile and the band took the stage, opening with their cover of Josh Ritter’s “Another New World”—featured on their new Ahoy! EP (starting a show-long call-and-response of “Ahoy!”)—the reasons for the crowd’s enthusiasm were apparent. The song and the following set were without-a-net string music, with an openness worthy of a jam band, interplay reminiscent of great jazz quartets and songwriting rivaling your favorite indie-rock freak folk. The audience went silent during the songs before erupting like a canned laugh track in between, eagerly applauding Noam Pikelny’s banjo figure eights or Thile’s masterful mandolin playing. The set drew from Punch Brothers’ entire catalog and beyond. “New York City” was an early ode to their hometown, while “Heart in a Cage” prompted a happy sing-along for a maybe-not-so-happy song, and “Song for a Young Queen” was one of many giddy instrumentals wrapping up multiple genres in a singular Punch Brothers sound.

The second half of the 90-minute show was one long highlight reel: the band premiering a nice cover of the Beach Boys“Surf’s Up” (a song they “wished to God” they had written), paying tribute to the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge, who had passed away earlier in the day, with “Through the Bottom of the Glass,” and handling an awe-inspiring movement from Thile’s “The Blind Leading the Blind.” During the last one, as the mathematically beautiful music unfolded, I was reminded that this bourbon-sipping picker is also a certifiable genius. As he led the band through a fantastic encore that hit on all of the quintet’s strengths, Thile mentioned his New Year’s resolution was to “drink more and better whiskey.” I’d like to add to that: Start a new New Year’s Eve tradition. —A. Stein