In all the acts ive seen perform in the last five months, none have taken as many precautionary measures as Punch Brothers. Last month, they announced they were dropping their opening act to keep the touring crew tight knit, and added two large air purifiers on either side of the stage. Chris Thile, ever the wordsmith, referred to the pandemic as “the great-what-have-you” in a message to the audience before the show asking to keep masks on at all times, sans a sip of your IPA. However, when you have five people singing and playing around a single microphone, it makes sense to ensure that everyone is kept safe. Regardless of the precautionary measures, both seen and unseen, it’s clear that all that effort is worthwhile when they are on stage. Songs, strings, and smiles abound.
“Ive missed this weather. Seriously!” Thile said after the second song of the night, in what I believe to be the first instance i’ve seen of an act complimenting our winter weather. “Doesn’t it make you feel alive!?” he asked to tepid cheering from those who are good at embracing the arctic tundra. Thile, who took over the Prairie Home Companion turned Live From Here variety show on MPR, is no stranger to our weather or The Palace Theatre, and gained a strong fanbase over the years he had spent here. He and Punch Brothers were welcomed here with opened, warm arms.
Part of the fun of the night comes from being musically inclined to both Punch Brothers, and bluegrass or folk music as a whole. While Punch Brothers has an extensive repertoire going all the way back to 2006, Their setlist consisted of mostly covers. Thile, a quarter of the way through the show, took time to credit the songs they had performed so far. Opening the night was a Bill Monroe tune, The House Carpenter / Jerusalem Ridge, followed by three Punch Brothers originals, My Oh My, Movement and Location, and Three Dots and a Dash. “At least I think we wrote Three Dots and a Dash” Thile said in his credit, After performing a Jimmie Rodgers song Any Old Time “I don’t think Jimmie Rodgers was into tropical drinks at all, so it wouldn’t make sense he would name a song like that.” Thile also took time to mention Punch Brothers newest album, Hell on Church Street released just over a week ago. The new album is a “re-imagining” of Tony Rice’s 1993 album of a similar name, Church Street Blues. Tonight’s show featured many covers off of the album that heavily influenced the band. Before performing Cattle in the Cane, Guitarist Chris Eldridge (Who studied guitar under Tony Rice) briefly played the intro to the original version of the song, which prompted Thile to ask “Wait, are we doing his version? Or ours?” to some audience laughter. Being this good and knowledgeable of your craft can mean being able to do both.
The show continued with more songs off of the Church Street albums from both bands, mixed in with Punch Brothers originals like The Blind Leaving The Blind, The Angel of Doubt, Jungle Bird, Magnet, and Its All Part of the Plan off of Punch Brothers 2018 Grammy winning album All Ashore. The last few songs of the night ended with a Hamilton Camp cover of Pride of Man which transitioned into a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, what I consider to be the climax of the night. They ended their set with Rye Whiskey and came back for the encore to perform Watch ‘at Breakdown and Julep.
Being a touring act in today’s environment is a feat of itself, but one of the things i had noticed tonight was the amount of respect the audience showed to the band by adhering to the bands mask policy, and above all, staying in tune to the music. Stringed instruments often require quite a bit of silence to get the full effect of every pluck, pick and drag on the strings, especially when it’s around a single microphone. I was in awe at how well the band was able to make these sounds, and how clear it sounded. Even the quietest plucks and outros had pin-drop-levels of silence in the Palace Theatre, which made it feel like the band was performing just for you. The only yelps from the crowd came from each member’s small solos in different parts of the night. When it came time to listen, the audience was the quietest i’ve ever heard, so much so that you could hear Chris Thile inhaling, feet back from the microphone, as he solo’d during Watch ‘at Breakdown, playing his mandolin at speeds i almost couldn’t keep up with. What a rare treat to have that level of silence and attentiveness from fans at the Palace Theatre. Punch Brothers deserved every second of it.