Watching the Punch Brothers is like being a child in a musical amusement park. There is a thrill and a tickle around every corner and dip and climb. There are big and fast rides, and there are romantic Ferris wheels and barkers in the distance beckoning you into haunted houses and maybe even a freak show. This is the best a non-musician can do when trying to express the apparent, seamless virtuosity of musicians.
Their latest album, "Who's Feeling Young Now," is apropos given my above metaphor, so I stand by it: youthful. I will always have difficulty with sit-down festival shows at the Trustees and Lucas, but we all have to grit our teeth because we can't kick the chairs out of the way and dance if we want to. We should have Sharon Jones come out like she did at her festival appearance two years ago and declare before singing, "I hope you all don't think you are going to be sitting down."
Nevertheless, we all still felt the Punch Brothers and even had a couple of opportunities to stand and applaud and shake it, "progressive bluegrass" style, whatever that might be!
The Punch Brother's label is Nonesuch records, one of the most eclectic and important labels of the past 50 years, releasing albums by Philip Glass, Wilco, Fatboy Slim, the Black Keys, Kronos Quartet and most recently, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They have surely earned their place in such an eclectic list. The crowd was treated to banjo instrumentals, stand-up bass solos, crooning from three of the five musicians and plenty of wit from Chris Thile. We were even treated with a new beautiful ballad about sipping mint juleps, which put us right on the porch with them.
The band's virtuosity is apparent in Savannah Music Festival special performances where both banjo player Noam Pikelny and acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge will do features outside of the band. The apparent lead man, Chris Thile, is also with another project, Goat Rodeo, which features Yo-Yo Ma, as well as guest appearances by Aoife O'Donovan, who joined the Punch Brothers on stage for a duet with Thile.
Thile's personality and voice are what bring the popular charm to the band. Though exhibiting a lesser virtuosity than the others (though fully capable of holding his own, as apparent in Goat Rodeo), I think the band's success actually hinges on his persona. His voice is a cross between a younger Del McCoury at its most bluegrassy, and dare I say Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie on the other? Yes, a stretch, but also testament to their mass appeal.
If their current music can be heard both in "The Hunger Games" and "Inside Llewen Davis," then maybe I am not that far off.