Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, Satellite Ballroom, Charlottesville, VA- 5/16
Since Nickel Creek parted ways last fall, it's become clear that Chris Thile is finally able to do things his way with his new outfit, the Punch Brothers. The mandolin prodigy cum revered instrument virtuoso has left the realm of bluegrass pop for much more complicated acoustic endeavors. With a supporting cast of some the slickest young string slingers in the game today, including fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjo upstart Noam Pickelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and Leftover Salmon bassist Greg Garrison, Thile has undertaken a new brand of modern classical composition through the scope of the five-man string band. The bulk of his two-hour set at the Satellite Ballroom focused on three out of the four movements of the adventurously ambitious "Blind Leaving the Blind," a 40-minute suite loosely written about Thile's divorce that follows the stages of a relationship through the broad emotions of the band's technical tension and release interplay picking.
Although the show took place in a run-of-the-mill rock club, it easily commanded the attention usually reserved for an ornate theatre. The crowd was largely awed into silence but was also eager to cheer when spitfire solos suddenly emerged from the pastoral peaks and valleys of the chamber music confines. Witcher was particularly adept at making his instrument move seamlessly from high lonesome-style fiddle to the more romantic persona of a violin.
The hybrid sound that jumps so seamlessly between genres is a stark reminder of the group broken by progressive predecessors Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck in their short-lived supergroup Strength in Numbers.
But the Punch Brothers are still a group of guys in their 20s. So when the quintet came back down to the reality of their age and instrumentation they decided to prove they could still pull off a ripping traditionally minded instrumental ("Watch 'at Breakdown") and enthusiastically lend the idiom to some new school garage rockers like The Strokes' "Heart in a Cage" and the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."