Punch Brothers, performing live at the legendary Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
Watching Punch Brothers perform is akin to watching the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers run the fast-break offense, with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile in the role of Magic Johnson at the point guard. It’s not simply that they exude effortlessness in their virtuosity, it’s that they do it in such a way that the magic they make seems inevitable.
This “Live from Blackbird” performance brought the quintet together at the high-end Nashville recording studio operated by country star Martina McBride and her husband, John Blackbird. It was Punch Brothers’ first show of 2020, in the shadow of the virus-pandemic shutdown that canceled most of their plans for the year (including Thile’s American Public Radio program “Live from Here”).
Breaking this long-enforced hiatus might account for the set’s general air of giddiness even though they were basically playing in an empty room. You do miss the energy that an in-person audience would bring; but they’re clearly having such a blast, gathered around a single microphone old-school style, that just being around one another seems like enough. A few songs in, Thile pauses to say he’s “having a difficult time processing how excited I am to be playing a show with you fine gentlemen,” concluding with a joking reference to banjo player Noam Pikelny: “And Pickles as well.”
Bela Fleck, among others, has traveled a similarly wide-ranging path over the years, so Punch Brothers’ eclectic tendencies aren’t entirely unprecedented. They have nevertheless taken ensemble virtuosity to new and higher levels. Less a bluegrass band than a group of conservatory whiz kids using bluegrass instrumentation, they embark on far-flung, fanciful excursions into different genres from wiseacre acoustic pop to more experimental tones. This set includes covers of the French impressionist composer Claude DeBussy (“Passepied,” the final movement of the composer’s 19th-century masterwork “Suite bergamasque”) and bluegrass-guitar legend Norman Blake.
That’s some serious range, but none of it seems the least bit forced. In large part that’s because all five players are virtuosos, led by MacArthur-certified genius Thile (a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, in addition to his pop-star past with Nickel Creek) with 2010 Steve Martin Banjo Prize winner Pikelny as foil. Throw in the Best Folk Album Grammy they won for their 2018 release “All Ashore,” and they truly are one of the more acclaimed groups in the modern Americana universe.
Given the immense skill levels involved, it would be easy for this to feel like a jam session where everybody is just waiting for their turn to solo. It is to Punch Brothers’ credit that each player puts as much into the backup-ensemble aspect as they do their individual spotlight moments. There’s nothing even close to a bum note or false moment throughout these 80 minutes.
At times, they manage to approximate the sound and depth of a much larger ensemble — a full-on orchestra, even.
They’re pretty much an Americana dream team capable of pulling off any flavor of avant-acoustic you can imagine, with touches of jazz, exotica and pretty much everything else. At times, they manage to approximate the sound and depth of a much larger ensemble — a full-on orchestra, even.
That especially goes for Thile, who gives off the demeanor of a mad scientist as he grins widely at his compadres. Of particular note here is “Watch ’at Breakdown,” just about the fastest showoff instrumental this side of “Orange Blossom Special,” in which Thile plays an impossibly odd mandolin solo that feels like a free-jazz concoction. It’s as brilliant as it is unconventional, leaving guitarist Chris Eldridge shaking his head in wonder as he watches.
You’ll probably be doing the same.
David Menconi is a journalist in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was 2019 Piedmont Laureate. He spent 34 years writing for daily newspapers, 28 of them at the Raleigh News & Observer. He holds a Master’s in journalism from the University of Texas and an English Bachelor of Arts from Southwestern University. He has written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Spin while publishing four books, most recently “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” (2020, University of North Carolina Press).