“If you know where the ‘oh, boys’ go, put them there.”
These simple pre-“Rye Whiskey” instructions from Punch Brothers ringleader Chris Thile thoroughly sums up the vibe of Thursday night’s (Sept. 13) bluegrass-heavy showcase at Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom.
Punch Brothers played their blended modern-traditional bluegrass songs with a go-for-broke spirit, and the appreciative audience exploded in a way that seemed to genuinely surprise the band after every song. They closed the night with a phenomenal cover of “Ophelia” by The Band.
Taking virtuoso musical ability and mixing it with improvisational passages and memorable choruses, Punch Brothers were extremely experienced and entertaining. They showed they can go traditional (“Watch ‘At Breakdown”), they can groove (“Hundred Dollars”), they can write a hook (“This Girl”) and they can even descend into musical chaos. Plus, in dapper suits and ties, they always seem to be the snazziest-dressed band in any room. (As a side note, if no one has ever referred to frantic frontman Thile as “the David Byrne of bluegrass,” can we go ahead and start doing that?)
Spunky fiddle maven Sara Watkins (Thile’s former bandmate in Nickel Creek) also turned in a free-spirited set of tender ballads and dazzling bluegrass-flavored numbers. Backed on guitar and vocals by her brother Sean Watkins (also a previous bandmate in Nickel Creek), she played some warm, folksy songs from her Sun Midnight Sun album, including the bouncy “You and Me,” the slow waltz of “Be There” and the slinky “When It Pleases You.” She also turned in a fantastic cover of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love” and played a stunning solo version of “Long Hot Summer Days” that had her conducting the crowd sing-along with her bow.
Traditional bluegrass quintet Blue Highway started off the night’s festivities and set the room up right. This talented group of elder statesmen have been playing together as a band for 18 years, and their ease of technical proficiency and musical interplay was clear to see. Their fiery banjo runs, strong bass lines, Van Halen-esque mandolin solos, rock-solid acoustic rhythms and fluid Dobro slides created an intricately textured musical bed for their harmony. However, as impressive as their instrumental work was, their two a cappella songs gained the loudest audience response.
The only non-bluegrass artist of the night was soulful blues rocker Paul Thorn. This goodtime storyteller wowed the crowd with his powerful songs and humorous nuggets of wisdom. His hilarious, tongue-in-cheek, pre-song anecdotes sounded like he was continually channeling a mixture of Forrest Gump and Madea. As a former professional boxer, it’s certainly understandable that his songwriting would have a certain dynamic swagger to it. With song titles like “Burn Down the Trailer Park,” “Pimps and Preachers,” and “Jukin’,” it should be pretty easy to tell that each clever lyric was delivered from behind a sly smile. For his last number, “Take My Love With You,” Thorn took off his guitar and sang the entire song from within the audience, endearing himself even more to the already captivated crowd.