Punch Brothers are veterans of Charleston’s various performing venues, from the Music Farm to the Music Hall and Spoleto's stages. I've seen them play all those venues over the years, including the Cistern on the College of Charleston’s campus. Always they raise the bar, and Sunday’s Spoleto Festival show blew the lid off on an already record-breaking steamy day in Charleston.
I credit Punch Brothers’ rendition of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” heard one night at the Music Farm, with finally and fully opening my mind to a band that had been lurking just out of earshot for years; and that for long stretches afterwards has nigh filled my musical universe. Years later, Punch Brothers played before the Dave Rawlings Machine at the Music Hall.
Communion is one measure of transcendence and so it was with that show. It’s how I came to know the retired couple in the seats next to mine. No longer strangers, they explained they had driven to Charleston in their camper van because they never missed a Rawlings’ concert, and they could recite a long list of memorable shows.
They also explained, as we gaped at one another, gobsmacked, after the finale with all the musicians on stage, that the gauntlet laid down by mandolinist Chris Thile and company over the first half of that extravaganza pushed the Machine to the best performance they’d ever seen.
It’s hard not to think about that Friday night in terms of a one-two punch — it was a near perfect show that left the audience reeling for the virtuosity, the energy, the joyful abandon of musicians all at one with the music — but for Punch Brothers boxing metaphors are deceiving.
For a band that takes its name from a Mark Twain short story about earworms, it was fitting that Punch Brothers opened their Spoleto set with several of the stickiest tunes from their last three albums — the backbone of their concert Sunday evening. Except for their encore anthem “Rye Whiskey,” which had the audience stomping and clapping along, and “Another New World” that ended in a wall of sound, all of the songs they played came from those recordings.
They opened with “My Oh My,” a song begun in Charleston when they played Spoleto for the second time in 2013. Close to the end they played another Charleston original, “Julep,” off their 2015 record “The Phosphorescent Blues,” this one written, front man Chris Thile explained, almost entirely in a city that is “one of their favorite places to make music in the whole world.”
The other two songs that raised the curtain on a bluegrass tour de force were the opening tracks from their 2012 and 2018 offerings, titled “Movement and Location” and “All Ashore.” In between, Punch Brothers lived up to their Twainian heritage to regale us with any number of insistent tunes that, I hope, will bounce around my brain for weeks to come.
On other occasions, Thile has been chatty, but tonight the band let the music do the talking in the main. The songs ranged from the intensely personal, where we learned that heaven is a cocktail on the porch, a familiar sentiment to this audience, to the overtly political “Just Look At This Mess.”
That song, from last year’s Grammy-award winning “All Ashore,” about a “sandlot antagonist-cum-king,” was dressed in exquisite vocal harmonies that shifted shape. The technical brilliance of these musicians is a given, but the passion with which the band delivered their critique was lost, presumably, on no one, even as the spoonful of lightning-infused sugar made the message go down.
When there was talk it was typically to ground the performance in Charleston, primarily to wonder at this place. And, in keeping with a bluegrass band that is every bit as comfortable in the idiom of classical music — homage to Debussy included — their ranging interest in the world around us was clear for all to see.
Banjoist Noam Pikelny had a nugget about Spanish moss, particularly the spider that lives only there, Pelegrina tillandsiae; a jumper in case you’re interested.
At the end Thile reminded us again how smitten Punch Brothers are with the Holy City. His parting shot was, “Let’s do it again next year.” Let’s.
Reviewer Mark Long is professor of political science at the College of Charleston and academic liaison at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.