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Punch Brothers are so good

State Theatre, Portland, Maine, March 7, 2014

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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As The Punch Brothers took the stage for their two-song encore, an exuberant fan yelled out, "You're so good, you suck." Banjo player Noam Pikelny repeated the imprecation for the rest of the crowd, and then Punch Brothers' leader Chris Thile did the same. The Punch Brothers are good. They don't suck. But, their craftsmanship and discipline is so precise that improvisation and emotion take a back seat.

The Portland stop was the last on the first leg of Punch Brothers' road tour supporting their new album " Phosphorescent Blues," released in February. "Blues" is strong melodically and technically; the live show showcases many of the selections from the release.

Thile, master mandolinist and vocalist carries a lot of the weight of the live show, which makes sense given his role as ringleader. Since the roughly 90 minutes on stage was devoted to exposing the new material as well as bringing back some Punch Brothers' standards (such as "Ahoy!" and "New York"), the band stayed very close to the songs as recorded. Visual and sound cues were startlingly crisp. In short, the show was a beautiful, energized technical achievement hitting all the marks.

The problem is that each of the Punch Brothers is a masterful musician who, with different performance parameters, can shred. It seems a shame to have Chris Eldredge stand on stage for nearly two hours and know that he could drop the crowd to its knees with some flatpicking at any moment. Pikelny on banjo had some bright licks, especially when in counterpoint with Thile's mandolin. Fiddle player Gabe Witcher excelled, and even contributed some percussive elements when needed. Bassist Paul Kowert shone whenever given the chance.

But, the Punch Brothers is Thile's show, despite the bench strength of his band mates. Thile's mandolin playing seems effortless (it's not). More than one member of the crowd be seen just shaking their head in disbelief as Thile ran off a cross-picking burst out of nowhere, or an impossibly facile run up and down the neck of his instrument. Thile's vocal range starts high and goes higher, an acquired taste.

The last time the Punch Brothers came to these parts, they did well at a smaller venue and graduated to this big room. The Punch Brothers delivered on their value proposition - promoting the new CD. For those looking for a more free-form approach, (and each Punch Brother can deliver vicious improvisational licks), a bluegrass festival setting might hold greater hope.