“Our compliments to the architect,” said mandolinist Chris Thile, looking around during an early pause in the Punch Brothers show atop the College of Charleston’s Cistern. “The Spanish moss was a nice touch.”
The five-man crew came out roaring, with Thile swaying during the opening tracks “Watch ‘at Breakdown” and the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”
For an audience evenly mixed between the white-haired Spoleto junkies and college kids scrambling to catch a free peek over the iron fence, the Punch Brothers demonstrated their unparalleled ability to unite genres and music lovers of different tastes. When Thile sang, “It’s kind of like the feeling in an old folks’ home/ You love them but you can’t wait for them to die,” in the song “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground,” it felt like the crowd flinched. But his high falsetto, holding vocal notes while walking through intricate mandolin lines, eased everyone’s soul back in.
At 28 years old, Thile has already composed an opera in response to a divorce. He’s surrounded himself with four other impeccable musicians (the makeup is mandolin, double bass, fiddle, banjo, and guitar), and bred even higher greatness with his talent. The goosebumps, emotions of romance and inspiration, and even a near tear were felt by the band as well, as they assured the audience they’d soon be moving to Charleston, and that their tour contracts would now require a former cistern at every performance.
After the visceral, four movement, 43-minute opus, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” the band settled into a closing segment of covers and rollicking bluegrass, beginning with the finest rendition of The Band’s “Ophelia” heard since The Last Waltz itself. Thile introduced a new “Valentine’s Day/Recession” song, before announcing they’d leave us with a sped-up but moving take on Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back in Time.”
At 10:45, the older Spoleto audience clearly felt they’d gotten their money’s worth. After an extended standing ovation, the crowd began to clear. But the Punch Brothers weren’t through. The empty seats up close quickly filled with the younger crowd from the back of the audience as the band ran back onto stage, asking, “Does anyone here like Radiohead?”
The symphonic discord of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” that followed was the most inspired acoustic take on an electric song I’ve witnessed. Over scratching bass, creeping sliding banjo, and a wild rhythmic percussion on the mandolin the group sang, “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case, get off my case, get off my case,” to a crowd in disbelief.
The Punch Brothers finally ended the night with “Warning,” a fun song about the effects and pleasures of rye whiskey. With magic dripping out of their ears and lingering in the moss laden trees, the band and the audience reluctantly parted ways and wandered dreamily off into the night, some surely to heed the warning, others to ignore it.
The Punch Brothers * Spoleto USA