Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile is a total ham. Monday night at TD Arena, he proved he’s still at the top of the mandolin game by tearing through a set of technically astonishing, emotionally moving pieces — and making it look easy. As he played, Thile gamboled around the stage like a court jester, headbanged in slow motion like a metalhead on ‘shrooms, and twisted his feet like a slalom skier. The man’s body was almost always in motion.
Whether you think Thile is a consummate showman or a cocky showboater, one other thing became apparent at the Punch Brothers’ lone Spoleto show: The band isn’t all about Thile. Because for every feat of mandolin badassery the former Nickel Creek prodigy pulled off — and there were plenty, from a blistering solo on “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” to a solo performance of a Bach piece that sounded like two instruments were playing at once — there were four equally impressive stunts by his bandmates, violinist Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge, and bassist Paul Kowert. The solos by Witcher and Pikelny were especially memorable, although Eldridge and Kowert’s spotlight moments would likely have been better served in a more acoustically oriented venue than a basketball stadium.
The MVP award for the evening goes to Pikelny, whose dextrous banjo runs gave the fast songs an especially frenetic feeling and lent the slow songs a hint of bluegrass authenticity. But then, purism is not the Punch Brothers’ aim. The band is at its best when it begs and borrows, using traditional bluegrass instruments to play songs with hints of modern classical, R&B, and even electronica (viz. the astonishingly faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A”). Fittingly, the band seemed to miss the mark any time they tried their hand at straightforward country and bluegrass arrangements. This is not to say the musicians fell short on the songs’ technical requirements; Thile’s voice was just a little too squeaky-clean to convey any sort of Appalachian grit, even when he yodeled on the Jimmie Rodgers classic “Brakeman’s Blues.”
This is a minor quibble, though. Complaining about the Punch Brothers’ take on bluegrass is a bit like saying Dennis Rodman was too flashy at grabbing rebounds. The show was a roaring success on the whole, easily earning a standing ovation and a three-song encore. As Thile announced during the show and Witcher explained in his City Paper interview, the Punch Brothers will be staying in Charleston for a week to work on new material. If you see Thile around town, ask him where he learned his dance moves.