Punch Brothers Take a Look Backward and Forward

December 31st, 2013

Punch Brothers – The Bowery Ballroom – December 30, 2013

The arrival of New Year’s Eve is the singular moment in the calendar when we’re equally looking backward and forward. This makes it the perfect time to catch the Punch Brothers, who take music and styles from the past and make them new and equally make modern sounds classic. Last night at The Bowery Ballroom was the second of three sold-out shows in what is taking root as an annual holiday tradition. A heavy curtain behind the stage played tricks with the light, the deep ruffles alternately absorbing and reflecting, evocative of another time and place. And as the band took the stage, Chris Thile wished the eager crowd a “happy New Year … almost!”

Punch Brothers opened with their version of Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” a gorgeous silence filling the space between the instruments: banjo, mandolin, violin, guitar feeling as timeless as ever. A new song, “Magnet,” simultaneously felt both New Wave and bluegrass, Thile silly and suggestive. An instrumental was dark, the music a step of phase, like they wound a bluegrass breakdown a quarter turn to the left with impressive solos from Gabe Witcher on violin, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Chris Eldridge on guitar before a short back-and-forth between Paul Kowert on bass and Thile on mandolin. These profound moments of beauty alternated with looser bits, the Punch Brothers’ humor always of the inside-joke variety, large portions of the audience ready to participate on songs like “Patchwork Girlfriend,” shouting along at the right time without provocation.

It was two pairs of covers that summed up the Punch Brothers’ forward-and-backward dichotomy. Mid-set they established their indie cred with an Americana take on Elliott Smith’s “Clementine” and followed it with a fantastic modernized rendering of a Claude Debussy piece. The latter was an impressive display of talent, all five musicians immersed in the piece, making it their own. The encore paired a solo Bach piece from Thile with a cover of Americana legend John Hartford’s “Old Joe Clark.” Thile, who resisted taking too many outlandish solos during the set proper, let it all out during the Bach tune, signaling that if you’re going to be self-indulgent, you might as well go all the way. Watching him contort both the music and his body, making the difficult look easy and the very old feel very new, wasn’t just art but performance art. “Old Joe Clark,” on the other hand, was just some good old-fashioned picking, and lest we forget where these guys come from, they tacked on a strong bluegrass version of Gillian Welch’s “Back in Time.” From “Another New World” to “Back in Time.” Forward and backward—happy New Year … almost.
—A. Stein