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Punch Brothers may go small, but so what?

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass., May 10, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Other recent concert reviews
By Jeffrey B. Remz

For Punch Brothers, size doesn't always matter. The quartet went small at the intimate, gorgeous theatre on the campus of Harvard. But the band could have easily played a venue a few times bigger. Chances are the results would have been about the same - high quality.

Led, in effect, by lead singer and mandolin ace Chris Thile, Punch Brothers are a bluegrass-based and/or infused band. Their strength is in their playing, and that's saying a lot. Thile has been a powerhouse for years on his mando, and his rep remained intact after this nearly 105-minute gig. Let's put it this way - he plays hard, typically fast.

But this is a band of brothers, who sometimes, but not always pack a punch. That meant Thile received ample help from banjo man Noam Pikelny, fiddle ace Gabe Witcher, upright bassist Paul Kowert and acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge. They each took lead or chimed in depending on the need of the song. Witcher was a particular standout time and again with his lyrical playing.

At times on the ethereal side, the songs tended to follow a similar pattern after awhile with quieter, mid-tempo to slower material. A sharp contrast was the Claude Debussy classical song " Passepied," a particular standout. (Thile joked that Debussy was a bluegrass fan). The song was steeped in classical music, although the fiddle and mandolin coloring it in bluegrass.

No matter what group he seems to play with, Thile, who also does time with Nickel Creek, becomes the focal point. He handled the lead singing, with just the right timing for the more humorous parts (On "Magnet," he paused, "I thought about it....a lot" to laughter).

Punch Brothers had a few songs dealing with alcohol, including the bouncy "The Hops of Goldenberg" and one of the most mainstream bluegrass songs of the night, "Rye Whiskey." Thile acknowledged the former was an instrumental, saying "You only know if it's not about beer if there are words" to laughter from the sold-out crowd (Fair disclosure - he has used the line at other shows, of course).

Not to be completely outdone, Pikelny displayed a droll sense of humor in his comments as well.

The only thing small about Punch Brothers was the venue. Their music doesn't always live up to the aggressive nature of its name, but that's okay. Tight, sharp playing can more than make up for it.

Gabriel Kahane, who mainly played grand piano, opened with a pleasingly eclectic set. He's a bit of a character onstage with a sense of humor. After all, he played a song directly taken from a very funny Craigslist post about a 20-year-old guy who was a bit off seeking women. Kahane also played several songs from his thematic disc, "The Ambassador," based on specific residences in Los Angeles.

Kahane could be an acquired taste for some, but he's good at what he does.