concert reviews

Punch Brothers at the Birchmere, Alexandria, VA, Friday 23 May 2008

The five men of Punch Brothers aren't actually brothers, but they sure were punchy on Friday night at the Birchmere: Banjo player Noam Pikelny gently chided a table for not finishing their fries, while mandolinist Chris Thile joked about celebrating the end of the show with a high-five.

That goofy presence didn't distract the string band from a precise, engaging performance that ranged from rowdy originals ("Punch Bowl") to covers of the Beatles ("Baby's in Black") and Norman Blake ("Green Light on the Southern"). While Thile may be the group's logical frontman as its singer, main songwriter and most well-known member (in addition to his solo career, he was a member of Nickel Creek), the other four musicians boast equally impressive résumés. Their experience and skill made the show a clear group effort: Gabe Witcher's melancholy fiddle anchored the transitions on the instrumental "Sometimes," while "Wayside" was propelled by Pikelny's sprightly banjo line.

The group's most adventurous number was a four-movement suite titled "The Blind Leaving the Blind." The Brothers chose to break the piece into two 20-minute chunks with a few shorter numbers played in between. What this approach lost in continuity it made up in momentum: Having shorter songs lead into the third and fourth movements (which far outshone the first two in both power and passion) gave their nearly two-hour set a boost of energy that packed a powerful . . . well, punch.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 26 May 2008; Page C06
.: Selected discography: Punch (Punch Brothers, 2008); How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (Chris Thile, 2005); Deceiver (Chris Thile, 2004); Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Chris Thile, 2001); Why Should the Fire Die? (Nickel Creek, 2005); This Side (Nickel Creek, 2002); Nickel Creek (Nickel Creek, 2000).