Maybe when you’re sweating, you play harder. The Punch Brothers’ sharp attire is a mainstay, and they didn’t shed their suit jackets on Sunday night, despite the still air and stifling heat. Mandolinist/singer Chris Thile seemed genuinely excited to be back at the Cistern, his group’s first return to the venue since their 2009 Spoleto debut. The quintet’s excitement emoted through their fingers and was audible in high harmonies.
“Are you ready for some bluegrass?” asked Quentin Baxter in his introduction. But the Punch Brothers only look like a bluegrass band — they’re more likely to cover Claude Debussy than the Stanley Brothers. Early tunes like “Boll Weevil” demonstrated how this all-acoustic group takes bluegrass instrumentation and creates something massive yet nimble, far beyond parlor picking.
“What a perfect, beautiful place to make some music for an evening,” said Thile after an opening three songs that included “All Ashore,” the title track from their 2018 album. Before the Debussy composition—the 11th of 16 songs performed over 90 minutes—banjoist Noam Pikelny took the mic to acknowledge the venue (“It seems too good to be true”), before joking that a “rare breed of jumping spider” is known to live in the Spanish moss draped from tree limbs overhanging the audience. He segued the joke into a Debussy intro, lauding the composer from “the great French hills” and admitting that five men would now perform a work composed by one musician for a single piano.
The filled-to-capacity audience roared in approval, as they did throughout the evening. When Thile finished the sailor tale “Another New World” with a hearty “Ahoy!” the audience fed him back with enthusiastic “Ahoys!”
“Well ahoyed,” Thile acknowleged.
The consistently strong crowd reactions were egged on by the band’s deft use of their instruments and bodies: violinist Gabe Witcher’s use of his fiddle as a drum in “It’s All Part of the Plan”; Pikelny’s sound effect banjo scratching; Thile’s near-constant noodle dancing and running in place as he emotes notes. When a woman screamed, “I love you, Chris!” from the blanket seating, guitarist Chris Eldridge — likely not the intended Chris — stepped to the mic with, “Thank you. I love you too.” “It must be nice,” muttered Thile.
Among the many MVPs in this band — Paul Kowert’s steady but run-ready bass lines, Pikelny’s restrained-into-explosive fills — it’s Eldridge at the mic that’s the undersung asset. His high harmonies to Thile’s even higher vocal melodies reach a perfection a digital chorus effect could never achieve. Not all angelic voices are female or boy choir — these two grown men can join the archangels on Sunday morning.
Late in the show, Thile introduced “Julep” as a song that they wrote the “vast majority” of “right here in Charleston,” adding that there is “music in the air” in our city. The “heaven is a julep on the porch” chorus resonated in the steamy night, as did the song’s “tick tick tock” lines as the ominous clock over the Cistern passed 10:15 p.m. and the concert’s designated 75-minute mark.
But the Brothers weren’t watching the time. They launched into “Jungle Bird,” an instrumental that’s among their many songs inspired by a liquor or cocktail. The song briefly comes together in a hopeful major segue that’s reminiscent of the Flecktone’s “New South Africa,” and a reminder that the Punch Brothers are the only band that’s reached — and even exceeded at times — the skilled combination of bluegrass artistry with orchestral composition that Bela Fleck’s group achieves.
The song segued into “It’s All Part of the Plan,” just as it does near the end of All Ashore, leading into a huge unifying crescendo and the end of the set.
Fortunately, even at 10:33 p.m., as Spoleto patrons near the front stood and expected the show to be over, the crowd stretching to the Cistern walls kept up the applause, and the band quickly retook the stage for “Rye Whiskey,” a song they performed during their last Cistern show in 2009.
The Punch Brothers reinvented the “new grass” paradigm. There is no unplanned jam to their music, yet it remains loose and free. This is not a bluegrass band falling back on 1-4-5 progressions or verse/chorus/verse/chorus song structures. They take barn-burning chops and apply them to technical compositions. The Punch Brothers are the perfect Spoleto band, and on Sunday, they orchestrated a return Cistern performance that will be talked about for another 10 years.