The stately Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre is no stranger to hosting top-of-their-game musicians, virtuosos with something to prove. So to some degree, it’s no surprise the MRC programmers have taken another bite of the cherry in having the Punch Brothers return to play this space.
The audience milling around the foyer speaks to the breadth of appeal this bluegrass/newgrass outfit offers; nouveau lumberjack hipsters, musician afficianados, fingerpickers and jugblowers, concert hall devotees, and the not infrequent Thile groupie. Band tshirts, blazers, beards, toned acetate spectacles: perhaps it’s this diversity of appreciators that has fuelled the Punch Brothers steady rise in profile.
The group’s on-stage setup is something familiar and simple: a single mic, with all five musicians clustered around it. It’s an old-school way to play, but that visually and musically suits the genre’s history, but also the sensibilities and skills of the band, who absolutely know how to control dynamics and work with each other in a tight space.
The Punch Brothers’ set wove through their catalogue of originals and covers, from pre-band Thile-era compositions through to songs off their most recent album The Phosphorescent Blues. Their versatility and range was on full display (as it is on the albums), with incredible covers such as Josh Ritter’s evocatively narrative Another New World (off The Punch Brothers EP Ahoy!), to classical arrangements like Debussy’s Passepied, elegantly and logically transcribed from piano to bluegrass quintet (of course).
Highlight moments include blazingly fast and expressive fiddle solos from Gabe Witcher (with an endearing hip wiggle that creeps into his vibrant performing), a bafflingly agile solo bass introduction to Flippen (from the Who’s Feeling Young Now? album) performed by Paul Kowert with a casualness that belied its incredible difficulty. Noam Pikelny’s effortless calm and unique voice on banjo was on constant display (although with fewer standout solo moments), and Chris Eldridge on guitar delivered admirable bluegrass structure and tone, flipping from rhythmic backup to more-ish solo with ease. And of course Chris Thile delivered several moments of inarguable brilliance, particularly in solos that displayed the bleeding-edge of contemporary mandolin performance, but also with more nuance in his vocals (almost always overshadowed by his instrumental virtuosity).
This tour’s performance felt a little different from past shows in Australia, with a subtle balancing of the set, featuring less of Thile’s cerebral and tangential expeditions during solo breaks. Songs were balanced, banter comparatively restrained, and the setlist selection hitting a sweet spot between the old familiar tracks and the newer material. Past shows have often featured at least one point where Thile escaped into the musical mesosphere, exploring melodic and chordal structures so abstract as to be virtually ineffable. This show felt like it was trying less hard, although with no compromises to the scintillating artistic and technical quality of the performances from all on stage.
Perhaps part of this is a function of age, with the band members reaching very-much adulthood milestones (including Thile’s first child, born since their last Australian tour). But this may also be a band that is more comfortable, navigating the blend of five top-notch musicians, performing even more now as a top-notch ensemble.