How the Punch Brothers Made us Walk a Mile in the Dark

Punch Brothers at the NC Museum of Art July 16 2015

By Art Menius

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This didn’t smell like teen spirit, but it sure sounded like teen spirit. At the North Carolina Museum of Art. At a concert with mandolin, upright bass, banjo, guitar, and fiddle, where Becky heard a girl ask “what are old people doing here?” At a one act, two hour outdoor concert that drew a festival-sized crowd. At the Punch Brothers first Raleigh, NC gig since the inaugural Wide Open Bluegrass in 2013.

Judging from the tee-shirts, that remarkable audience building exercise that puts the exclamation point on the end of IBMA week in Raleigh was a strong contributing factor to the success of remarkable event. Some of the greatest audience reaction came for the most bluegrassy of the eighteen songs, including a triple encore. How often do you hear young people scream in recognition of a banjo riff or mandolin break that signals a song they love? How often do you hear thousands scream each time Chris Eldridge sings the title line of “Through the Bottom of a Glass?” Heck, they applauded for Thile’s red solo cup and celebrated all three songs concerning drinking. The times they are a-changing.

I had expected two thousand folks there, but the audience turned out to be more like 6,000. People packed every inch of permanent seating where we were fortunate to find a place besides two friends from Columbia, Maryland. They filled not just the grass covered general admission area but the tree covered hillside above that. Local banjo player Hank Smith was among the crowd in the woods on the west side viewing the stage from behind and to the side. A good three hundred people stood the entire two hours six deep in front of and to the side of the stage, some having taken their places a good hour before show time.2015-07-16 20.15.59

I didn’t realize what a happening this was until we came off the exit ramp and immediately found ourselves in a slowly moving line of cars stretched a good half mile from the museum entrance. Our parking place ended up being almost all the back to the exit. The crowd appeared to be mostly composed of people older than 45 or younger than thirty. Pre-teen girls with crushes on Chris Thile jumped up and down and climbed on to their parents’ shoulders for a better view. Yet I also ran into an octogenarian lady who to the best of my knowledge is one of only two parents of my elementary school classmates still living.

Thile flirted with and played to the audience. He made one sly reference to his future job with Minnesota Public Radio and displayed all his rock star moves including a Chuck Berry duck walk. The gorgeous stacked vocals and complex pocket symphony arrangements on his compositions consistently revealed the influence of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album that Pete Wernick gave him a twenty years ago as his introduction to pop music. The MacArthur genius may well be a 21st century Brian Wilson without the mental problems.

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Unsurprisingly the quintet demonstrated their exceptional musical chops and inventiveness throughout. Instrumentally, they demonstrated their debt to bluegrass much more strongly than I had expected. Among the flashing lights and smoke machine (in a non-smoking venue), the Punch Brothers produced a lot of high order picking. All in all, I have quite been to a show like this with bluegrass picking and a rock show look and feel. Anyone who doubts IBMA and Wide Open Bluegrass are having a major impact in this area need look no further.



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