“We’ve wanted to do this for so long!” declared Chris Thile before launching into the first number of the Punch Brothers’ Austin City Limits taping. While it was the band’s first time on ACL, it was not the first for Thile, who has graced our stage three times before with his former group Nickel Creek and as part of Dolly Parton’s backing ensemble. So the Punch Brothers show was a debut by an ACL veteran.
Paradoxes aside, the quintet killed it with their unique take on acoustic music. Set up with bluegrass instrumentation but just as influenced by jazz, classical music and pop as anything old-timey, the Punch Brothers performed a stunning array of tunes that slipped through the fingers of specific genres like hyperactive toddlers. From the stop-start rhythms of “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” and “Hundred Dollars” to the straight pop melodies of “New York City” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” the band delivered a restless, intensely creative set of songs.
Tradition didn’t get short shrift, either – the instrumental “Watch’at Breakdown” and a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues” delivered plenty of old-fashioned bluegrass thrills. The band combined their experimental and traditional sides midshow by seguing a judiciously dissonant cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” into a blazing take on Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back in Time” .
The band returned to the stage for an encore with heartfelt and fun tributes to recently fallen heroes – Earl Scruggs with the banjo master’s “Groundspeed” and Levon Helm with the Band’s “Ophelia.” Throughout the show the band used their instrumental virtuosity only for good, never soloing to the point of tedium – their taste was as impeccable as their musicianship. The Punch Brothers’ set was as fine an example of unclassifiable contemporary acoustic music as anyone could hope for.
“When you start a band, this is all you really want to be able to do – play Austin City Limits,” noted Thile halfway through the show, as he cited the Season 15 show with Strength in Numbers as a catalyst to his desire to make music. We’re always happy to host great musicians who’ve grown up with ACL. Hopefully future generations will be inspired by the Punch Brothers when the episode airs this fall on your local PBS station. Check our Facebook and Twitter pages for more info as the year progresses.