I've caught myself saying this a lot lately: I don't need to see that band again. It's not as if I don't like the band, but when your concert attendance starts hitting the double digits, especially in the bigger venues, my interest drops off a cliff (with very few exceptions). But when a friend is in town and wants to hit the Fillmore, why the hell not? Thus, hello Punch Brothers!
Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, April 4, 2015: A pleasant surprise awaited me when I bought tix from the Fillmore box office for the show: download codes for each concert-goer. I figured the Punch Brothers were offering, at best, a three-song sampler, but I was dead wrong. The download covered the entire new album, The Phosphorescent Blues. As I've said a million times, I nearly always favor live music over studio recordings, and the download fit perfectly into my plans. I realize not all bands have the luxury of giving away their music, but I have so much respect for the Punch Brothers for reaching out to the fans who come out to see them on the road.
Perhaps the Punch Brothers can pull off these acts because they know they'll be rewarded by passionate audiences at every stop, if San Francisco is anything to go by. Granted, they were booked for two nights at the Fillmore, which is already a good sign. But you still have to pack the bodies in and fire them up -- check and check on both counts in San Francisco, as the fans responded with cheers, singalongs, and declarations of love.
By no means am I particularly knowledgeable about the Punch Brothers, but I've enjoyed the privilege of seeing them or at least Chris Thile fairly often at Largo. I also don't mind admitting their more not-bluegrass touches hooked me, though I can't imagine how you couldn't love their banjo solos.
If you've listened to the new record, you know it starts off on a decidedly poppier, more accessible tone, but if you stick around, you'll hear the usual mandolin and harmonies kick in later. That wasn't the only change: The live setup now included a set of drums, and at one point, Chris brought a bouzouki. Never fear -- still no electric guitar in sight. As it turned out, Gabe Wicher took the drums for a handful of songs while simultaneously playing fiddle, but his percussion duties were mostly limited to kick drum.
I have no idea what longtime fans may think of this development, but it all sounded great to me. Of course, the Punch Brothers touched on their roots -- say, with the Jimmie Rodgers cover "Brakeman's Blues." At other times, I kept thinking they should've written for the Taylor Swift of, like, two albums ago. But mostly, I marveled that they could turn one of the most old-fashioned of American musical forms into prog rock -- it's no small feat to mount a mountain of suspense out of such timeless instruments.
The topper to the show might've been the a cappella turn at "The Auld Triangle," from tons of sources, but in this context, perhaps most famously from Inside Llewyn Davis. (I really only know it from listening to Jeff Tweedy covers, don't yell at me for not citing Dylan or any of the Irish troubadours who originated it.) The six of them gathered around the appropriately old-fashioned microphone and delivered perfect harmonies to complement the eternal track; we in the audience helped in the chorus as well. As a fairly impartial by-stander, I loved it, and I wish every concert could have such a moment.
Gabriel Kahane opened the show, and I'd seen him a few years before playing with Chris Thile at Largo. The audience was incredibly respectful to him and let him sing -- and he deserved to be heard! He even made me curious about some of the Los Angeles landmarks that inspired him, so that could be a mission on my next visit down south.
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