The word “virtuoso” gets thrown haphazardly around the name Chris Thile often — especially in regard to his something of a super-group the Punch Brothers, who performed at the State Theatre Saturday. The term “virtuosic” often conjures images of mechanically skilled technicians. And certainly, each member of the band (Chris Thile on mandolin, Gabe Witcher on fiddle/violin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Christ Eldridge on guitar and Paul Koewrt on bass) has a virtuosic command of his instrument. But this is not what makes the Punch Brothers so captivating. Their virtuosity is a means to an end. The pure warmth and heart emanating from the stage illuminated the band’s jocund and egoless spirit and charisma.
The show began with Tom Brosseau, who Chris Thile introduced with a word about boring music: “There is nothing worse than boring music.” Tom Brosseau, he assured the audience, plays the least boring music there is.
Brosseau began his set with the traditional bluegrass song “Little Bessie,” unamplified and a capella. His command of the theater was unquestionable and his performance magnetic. His set consisted of quiet, folky narrative pieces that easily could have but never slipped into the realm of novelty. Even his song about iPhone addiction with the refrain, “Cradle your device,” was funny and quirky, but not hokey.
He further won the audience with his shy and understated brand of humor. “‘I’m from North Dakota,’” he said his grandmother told him, “‘where there’s a pretty girl behind every tree. … There are no trees in North Dakota.’” His songs told vivid stories and Brosseau wove seamlessly in, out and through dialogue and song. He sang alone; and, though charmingly soft-spoken, his voice swung through beautiful and intricate melodies and filled the theater to control the audience who sat attentive throughout his set. His melodies defied convention, and his subtly androgynous voice was expressive and clear. His striking opening performance was short but full and powerful in its own right.
Punch Brothers began its set with “Movement and Location,” off of its latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now, released last February. The album garnered positive critical reviews and deservingly so — it has been touted far and wide for both its accessibility and technicality. Nevertheless, this band also faces the persistent call of critics and listeners trying to define its place in genre, mainly: Is it bluegrass or indie-rock? The thing is, as was unquestionably demonstrated, it doesn’t matter. It’s both and neither and entirely irrelevant. What was relevant was the undeniable life and quality of the performance.
“Movement and Location,” with its intricate arrangements and enveloping sound, filled the State Theatre and made any ambivalent audience member fully enthused. The band played a satisfying variety of its repertoire, mostly filling the show with upbeat songs reliant on powerful vocals. Particularly of note, it covered The Strokes’ “Reptilia” remarkably well. But the group also featured a good bit of its instrumental fare, delving into what Thile called, “The phase every artist goes through where they write songs for Natalie Portman.” With this portion of the show especially, the band did not neglect to display its supreme ability, and what could have easily been a serious show of technicality was instead a warm and inclusive performance.
Much of this success is owing to the band’s charming and charismatic presence. Outfitted in their finest, the five musicians clearly took the importance of their performance to heart. Thile’s winning banter made attendees swoon, and the group’s dance moves weren’t half bad, either. What makes the Punch Brothers so great, the reason that it gets called “virtuosic” and the reason that this performance was so extraordinary all comes back to something so clearly evident on Saturday: The band exudes joy in its work and invites listeners to join along. The spirit of the show was contagious. From Chris Thile’s introduction of Tom Brosseau to the multiple cheers Thile gave the audience with his Punch Brothers flask, the love for the music and the performance was tangible, and the audience gave it right back.