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Punch Brothers @ 2016 Adelaide Guitar Festival Review

You missed the Punch Brothers? O Brother where were thou?

According to Punch Brothers’ mandolinist and lead vocalist Chris Thile, bluegrass music encompasses two emotions: loneliness and desperation. The genre is typically associated with some pre-conceived notions: it is moonshine and mountains; hoedowns and hootenannies.

While the US quintet did form after a bout of heartache-induced boozing, they have devoted their decade-long partnership to challenging traditional perceptions as to what constitutes this uniquely American sound.

It was fitting, therefore, that they opened the Adelaide Guitar Festival (11 August) not in a barn, but rather the sombre surrounds of the Adelaide Town Hall; a venue more associated with classical chamber music.

As the Punch Brothers took to the stage, equipped with mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and double bass and attired in rustic garb, they looked like any other Americana band. When they launched into a rendition of Claude Debussy’s ‘Passepied’, though, it was readily apparent that this was an entirely different beast.

Their repertoire does contain rollicking shanties and beer-inspired anthems, but these songs are mainly interspersed between intricate, classically-inspired pieces, such as ‘Familiarity’, the sprawling ten-minute opening track from ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’. It is a song that contains various movements: tender lulls and swelling crescendos, virtuoso solos and cacophonous dins.

The band readily switches gears, though, effortlessly dropping three-and-a-half minute pop gems such as ‘I Blew It Off’ and ‘Magnet’.

For their current Australian tour, this diverse catalogue has been performed in a uniquely intimate manner. Five men, five instruments, one microphone; this is perhaps a roadie’s dream or maybe their nightmare?

For the duration of the show, the entire ensemble huddles around a single mic, as though it is a campfire warming them during a chilly Appalachian winter. They could perform within an elevator; remarkably they never bumped elbows as they plucked and strummed, simultaneously emitting plaintive vocal harmonies.

Between tracks, Thile and banjoist Noam Pikelny offered anecdotes infused with their dry and rye wit; a humour founded in the legacy of Mark Twain. Unfortunately for Radiohead fans, their exquisite rendering of ‘Kid A’ did not make the cut on this particular night. This did not matter; a unanimous and spontaneous standing ovation was given by an audience that was equal parts grey-haired classical enthusiast and wiry-bearded, Americana-loving hipster.

The Guitar Festival only lasts four days, but this year it certainly packs a punch.

★★★★★
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