Punch Brothers, The Vic Theater, Chicago, IL – 12/13
“Ahoy!” Chris Thile greeted the crowd with the title of the Punch Brother’s current EP release. Ahoy! Like a fresh off the docks, bright eyed sailor, Thile cajoled the crowd to respond in kind. By closing out a sixteen show North American tour to a packed house at The Vic Theater, the band achieved one of their goals, selling out the iconic theater in banjoist Noam Pikelny’s hometown of Chicago. Even on a Thursday night, the string quintet’s fast growing fanbase flocked to the northside venue.
One sign that the second folk revival is alive and strong are young bands like The Milk Carton Kids. The duo took to the stage, each equipped with a guitar, and leaked their souls out to the masses. They sing together and interweave guitar parts in an eloquent and simple fashion.
The brainchild of former Nickel Creek virtuoso Chris Thile, Punch Brothers pushes the musical context of a string quintet to new boundaries with a sound that chills the bone. This particular evening, Paul Kowart summoned a resonance from his double bass that expanded upon the complexities of the instrument. During his solo in Patchwork Girlfriend, an eclectic and haunting song, Kowart’s bass, at his command, howled like a cello and even perfectly articulated notes in the register of a violin.
On songs like “Another New World,” each member of the band would play a unique and independent part, yet as a whole they managed to find a perfectly harmonious bearing. Thile wore the soundscapes like a mask, his expressions captured the essence of the music. His charismatic nature channels the interaction between band and audience. The music the Punch Brothers play is so intricate that the full house crowd attentively listened to each note, anticipating the next movement.
Towards the middle of the show, Thile announced that it was time for Punch Brothers Karaoke, and with that the quintet launched into The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” The crowd of 1400 had been doing a great job of singing along to The Punch Brothers’ original tunes, but every set of vocal chords at The Vic belted out the words to the 1978 power-pop hit.
The band closed out their set with “Rye Whiskey,” a fast paced tune about the powers of bluegrass’ favorite social lubricant. Every time the chorus came around to the line “Oh Boy,” the crowd shouted the words with the band like an incantation. The musical tone surrounding the line “I took it and I took her for granted” was so uplifting, it felt like the theater was taking a deep breath to soak up the moment.
The encore was a dramatic scene, Thile returned to the stage alone with his mandolin. The din of the crowd was quieted to nil as he began to play un-amplified. One man, alone on stage with his instrument, demanded utter silence, like a enigmatic politician delivering a speech to his most loyal supporters. Aside from his melody, the room was so hushed that a passing ‘L’ train could be heard through The Vic’s brick walls. With the crowd firmly under his spell, Thile welcomed the rest of his band mates back to the stage to close out the show with one last song.