Knockout: Punch Brothers at College Street Music Hall

Photo Courtesy of NPR

Concert Review by Maya Polsky

Dressed hipster-fancy in suits and boots, Punch Brothers sauntered onstage a little past 9pm in for a thrilling night of music at College Street Music Hall in New Haven. Punch Brothers is Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass), a supergroup of virtuoso string players whose style is rooted in bluegrass but dips into classical, rock and everything in between. Led by Thile, a MacArthur “Genius” who hosts the popular radio program“Live from Here,” and has performed with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Brad Mehldau, Punch Brothers formed in 2006; each band member is a former child prodigy, conservatory-trained, or both. Currently, the band is on the road touring for their latest Grammy-winning album All Ashore.

They kicked off the mid-March evening with “Movement and Location,” a track from their 2012 album Who’s Feeling Young Now? The song builds off of a quick, syncopated banjo and mandolin line anchored by steady quarter notes from the bass and the guitar; Thile’s vocals sail over the music. Between verses, the band members weave through the chord changes, passing the melody around as each player puts his own spin on it.

There were a number of musical highlights of the evening. The band showed off their classical chops on a gorgeous interpretation of Debussy’s “Passepied.” Later, on “Just Look at This Mess,” they skillfully transitioned between feels: first meditative and delicate, next percussive and groove-oriented, then meditative and delicate again, only bigger. For the encore, what started as an instrumental tune took the audience by surprise and morphed into “Rye Whiskey,” a fan favorite for its explosive energy and cheeky lyrics (“Rye Whiskey makes the band sound better/ Makes your baby cuter,/ makes itself taste sweeter,/ oh, boy!”). Punch Brothers approached every song with grace, musicality, and warmth.

Before Punch Brothers, opening act Gabriel Kahane captured the audience’s ears with his carefully crafted songs. Kahane is a Brown alum and a self-described “composer by day, singer-songwriter by night.” He won the crowd over with his hilarious musical interpretations of tweets as well as his beautiful songs, including the wonderfully melodic “Little Love.”

The crowd clearly had a lot of music lovers and die-hard Punch Brothers fans who knew every lyric and offered up appreciative “whoops” after particularly beautiful solos.

The tour continues through July. Catch Punch Brothers if you can!