Punch Brothers Meet, But Don’t Exceed, High Bar


Courtesy of Yevgen Gulenko

(From left) Punch Brothers members Gabe Witcher on violin, Chris Eldridge, OC ’04, on guitar, frontman Chris Thile on mandolin, Paul Kowert on double bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo lock into a rhythm during their Artist Recital Series performance in Finney Chapel Sunday night. The bluegrass group demonstrated their talent and chemistry, but focused on diversity of repertoire at the expense of crowd-pleasing favorites.

Anne Pride-Wilt, Arts Editor

When popular bluegrass band Punch Brothers turned out a last-minute show at the Cat in the Cream last semester, the raucous, enthusiastic concertgoers were treated to a hit parade culled primarily from the band’s crowd-pleasing last two albums. The clean acoustics of the small venue perfectly accentuated the show’s plunky, less bluegrass-heavy than usu­al set list. To be clear, it was one of the best concerts Oberlin has seen this year. But when the Punch Brothers took the Finney Chapel stage last Sunday night, it quickly became clear that while the band was playing in top form, this concert was a far cry from its organic, wild Cat show. On the contrary, this Sunday night’s show was an almost academic, calculated mix of fun songs, traditional bluegrass, eclec­tic covers and classical arrangements that seemed more designed to showcase the band’s range than to produce a fun show.

The Finney Chapel performance, pre­sented as part of the ongoing Artist Recital Series, was only one in a long line of events and performances that Punch Brothers are participating in as part of their three-part residency in the Conservatory. The band, including guitarist Chris Eldridge, OC ’04, stayed in Oberlin for a week at the end of last semester, hosting master classes, im­prov sessions and all manner of workshops, culminating in the Cat performance. They returned last week for more of the same, the most-hyped event of which was the sold-out Artist Recital Series performance in Finney. In May the quintet will return again for a collaborative performance dur­ing Commencement weekend.

Regardless of how the May perfor­mance goes, though, the Finney show is sure to remain a standout, at least in terms of scale — a sold-out Finney show is no small feat for anyone. Considering that Punch Brothers are a bigger act than Oberlin’s usual fare, concertgoers started lining up outside a full 30 minutes before doors opened. The unusually diverse au­dience was comprised of a healthy mix of students and community members. Front­man and mandolinist Chris Thile acknowl­edged the brief time that elapsed since the band’s last visit when they took the stage — “How are y’all? It’s been … months!” — but not much time was spent on reminisc­ing, as they almost immediately launched into the music.

Curiously, the band opened with a cover rather than one of their own tunes — albeit one for which the band has be­come well-known — of Josh Ritter’s haunt­ing “Another New World.” A new, original instrumental piece followed, and only af­ter that did the band come through with “This Girl,” a favorite from the group’s most recent full album, 2012’s Who’s Feel­ing Young Now? This odd initial ordering more or less set the pattern for the rest of the show — a cover, an instrumental and a recognizable Punch Brothers song, with a wild card thrown in here and there for good measure.

It was the wild cards, though, that de­fined the tone of the show. Most notably, the group played a Debussy arrangement that Chris Thile announced with, “Now for some Debussy.” The audience mostly laughed in response, assuming he was joking, before the five-piece actually did play a lively ar­rangement that sounded perfectly natural with the unorthodox instrumentation. The song was followed with its polar opposite, an as-of-yet unreleased new original song called “Magnet” in the band’s more recent pop-y style, lyrics querying, “Is there a cen­ter between two centers of attention?” Also in the mix were a few more covers, less associated with the band than “Another New World,” including a pleasant version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” by the White Stripes (or, in Thile’s words, “Jack White and his sister-wife Meg”) and a sub­lime cover of Elliot Smith’s “Clementine.”

All of this variety was enjoyable in the moment. Each band member — El­dridge, Thile, violinist Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny and double bassist Paul Kowert — is wildly talented on his own, and the chemistry between the five only accentuates their individual skill. In particular, Thile’s goofy hopping mo­tions while playing are a joy to watch; his weirdness is so unabashedly enthusias­tic that it becomes infectious. All of this made the Finney show an energetic, en­gaging performance, and after the second standing ovation following the encore, the audience left with a smile on almost every face.

Frankly, though, it could have been better. Finney acoustics are notoriously ill-suited to musical performances, and the concert was affected by the muddy sound. But more than that, the set list felt calculated to impress, as if the purpose of the concert was less to put on a great show than to highlight the band’s range. When the crowd’s energy was high after, for example, fast and loud “Rye Whiskey,” still the band’s biggest hit, the band didn’t respond to that energy and keep the mood elevated, but rather dampened it with a 10 minute movement of a longer, slower piece, the fourth movement of Thile’s “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Both pieces are beautiful and impressive in their own ways — but Punch Brothers should have picked a theme and stuck to it rather than trying to be all things to all people. This is what the Cat show last December did better; it went for “fun” before “impres­sive,” and the results blew away the self-consciously grown-up Finney concert.

Nonetheless, Chris Thile, and hopefully the rest of the band, loves Oberlin, as he announced towards the end of the show (“I hope that’s okay,” he added), and Ober­lin rightfully loves them right back, if one can judge from the enthusiastic response of the Finney audience. The quintet is as­toundingly talented, so even a less-than-stellar performance will still probably be one of the better concerts of the year. Even so, here’s hoping that when Punch Brothers return over commencement weekend, they focus less on impressing and more on having fun.