Live reviews

REVIEW: Punch Brothers at the Barbican (2018 EFG LJF)

Punch Brothers
iPhone snap by Leah Williams

Punch Brothers
(Barbican, 17 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Leah Williams)

Wherever Chris Thile goes, inventive sounds and lyrics, unbridled joy and energy follow, and the progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers is no different. And Thile was most certainly on full form last night, keeping the audience raptly attentive with his virtuosic playing and singing, his trademark writhing body and priceless facial expressions. But it isn’t all about him and to proclaim so would be to do the collective an injustice.

The Punch Brothers are so unique and successful precisely because of the incredible skill and personality of each member. Alongside Thile on mandolin, banjo ace Noam Pikelny, bassist Paul Kowert, acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge and fiddler Gabe Witcher make up a unified whole where at times it’s difficult to distinguish from where each sound is emanating.

The music is incredibly intricate and complex, with each instrument being stretched to its full capacity. Yet, crowded intimately around one mic with nothing but relaxed, happy expressions on their faces, the quintet masters each note, rhythm and twist and turn with enviable ease. Whether weaving in and out or playing in faultless synchronicity, they take the audience on a musical rollercoaster. Each song journeys through precision perfect highs, lows, soft moments and moments filled with frenzied energy, leaving you with adrenalin pumping and heart melting at the same time.

They played pretty continuously in this high-octane fashion for almost 2 hours, blending old favourites with new tunes from their latest album All Ashore. Songs from this album are reliably varied in tone and content, with subjects ranging from “odes to great Tiki cocktails” through to ruminations on isolation and relationships in the modern day. Pikelny simplified this with a witty introduction, saying the concept was widely based on the ‘“circus back at home”, with a very simple message of “help, help us please”. This led nicely into tunes very clearly inspired by a political backdrop we can all relate to, the aptly named Just Look at This Mess fully highlighting the quintet’s ability to seamlessly blend virtuosic playing with satirical sentiments.

A much-deserved standing ovation acknowledged the impassioned, generous performance of this music, the kind of music that is made to be heard, seen, experienced live. For their two encores, the quintet managed to do the impossible and create an even more exposed and intimate atmosphere, abandoning the microphone for softly mesmerising acoustic moments.

An excellent showcase of the kaleidoscope of sounds, textures, colours and emotions you can create with 5 stringed instruments and a lot of soul. A fantastic gig to kick off the ever-widening scope of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

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