Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
hris Thile may be the guy in Punch Brothers who gets most of the attention, but that would be selling the quintet short. Very short. Yes, Thile has been doing his thing on mandolin for 25 years solo and with Nickel Creek, among others - although he's still a few years away from 40 - and now he has a gig with Prairie Home Companion.
By outward appearances, Thile also spearheads Punch Brothers live. Yes, he does most of the talking, is the most physical of the players (when he gets going on mando, his body wildly twists and turns) and does all the lead singing.
Make no mistake about it, however. This is one great collective, which is better live than on the recorded version of the songs. While sometimes a bit laid back and monochromatic on the recordings, in concert, it's a different story. The energy was palpable onstage, and it certainly fed the crowd.
The intensity of the playing came to the fore time and again, and not only with Thile contorting himself when he would get into a run.
In lock step with him are banjo ace Noam Pikelny, bassist Paul Kowert, acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge and Gabe Witcher on fiddle.
Depending on the song - the band just released its politically charged brand spanking new CD "All Ashore" - each and all of them had a chance to shine time and again.
Not only does Pikelny have a wry sense of humor, playing off of Thile, but he contributed lots of fine runs on banjo. So did Witcher, sparking a number of songs with his ultra fluid, high vitality playing. Kowert may have been more laid back, but he also helped set the bottom beat. Often it seems in bands that the acoustic guitar comes off as barely audible, Punch Brothers gave Eldridge the prominence he deserves.
Thile's compadres often accompanied him on backing vocals, giving just the right touch.
While the group shifts and turns musically from straight ahead bluegrass to a classical influence here and there to more of an acoustic music vibe, for a bit more diversity, it would have been nice to hear someone besides Thile on lead vocals. He's a good singer, though perhaps went to the falsetto mode a bit too often.
Ten years on, Punch Brothers are one cohesively tight group with an emphasis on group - even if Thile is front and center.