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Punch Brothers start year late, but no problem

Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Mass., January 13, 2011

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Punch Brothers were a gig late in starting their tour, the first of the new year. Apparently, the pent-up energy from a show bagged in western Massachusetts due to Wednesday's heavy snowstorm did the bluegrass-based band good because they sure were lively, musically lyrical and out and out fun.

The Punch Brothers had a well-received 2010 disc, "Antifogmatic," an easier to grasp disc than their often dense and musically difficult debut. The Brothers emphasized their second CD live, playing 7 of the 10 songs, starting with You Are and Don't Need No from "Antifogmatic."

The Punches are steeped in bluegrass of the newgrass variety, but sometimes veer for acoustic music, country or improvisation. They mixed it up with a few pieces from other groups and instrumentals as well. The group turned in an engaging reading of Josh Ritter's Another New World, which they learned from touring with him last year. They followed that with their very animated take on Norman Blake's New Chance Blues, which was way more bluegrass than blues. The song garnered them a Grammy nomination for best country instrumental.

Their debut of the Beatles' Paperback Writer was stamped with bluegrass and showed off their vocal and musical abilities to fine effect.

Chris Thile clearly was the focal point. Singing most leads, he brings with him years of mandolin experience and being in the limelight with Nickel Creek. While steeped in bluegrass, Thile can do a lot more than that. For the first song of the encore, for example, he came out solo, and plucked away on Bach's last movement from his G Minor Fugue. Perhaps Bach would have rolled over in his grave, but Thile made the composition come alive for the sold-out crowd.

But this was not Thile and a bunch of sidemen. Fiddle player Gabe Witcher stood out time and again and took lead vocals as well. Banjo man Noam Pikelny had his share of the spotlight as did acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge and upright bassist Paul Kowert.

Thile also helped keep things on the humorous side with both comments and his playing. His band mates were not afraid to chime in either as Eldridge twisted Thile's words at one point to indicate he was talking too much to much laughter and a "wounded" Thile playfully admitting as much. Yes, the Punch Brothers most definitely take their music seriously, but it's okay to have some fun.

The Punch Brothers displayed their different sides on the encore with the Bach song, a cover of Johnny Cash's Big River and Rye Whiskey. This proved to be a strong end to the show 110 minutes and one day after it was slated to all begin.

Opening duo The Secret Sisters are a seriously misnamed group. Consisting of Laura and Lydia Rogers from Muscle Shoals, Ala., the duo shined in their way too short set, which consisted mainly of covers in less than 30 minutes.

Early on, Laura said they have been called "the female Everly Brothers," and she said was a "real big compliment" before launching into Why Baby Why. The Everlys appellation was an apt one with lively singing and harmonies from the Rogers sisters. Laura stands out more as the spokesperson and singer for the Secret Sisters, and she does a good job at both.

The Secret Sisters did justice to the Everlys , Hank Williams (Your Cheatin' Heart and a lovely take on the closing House of Gold).

More original songs from The Secret Sisters would have been welcome. Covering Willie Nelson's Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain just seemed like a bit too many. The Secret Sisters soon launched into River Jordan, which Laura Rogers said they wrote in Boston last year. The gospel song stood out with the crowd clapping along to the pretty harmonies.

The Secret Sisters did their best to overcome their name and succeeded.