BWW Review: ADELAIDE INTERNATIONAL GUITAR FESTIVAL 2019 - AN EVENING WITH PUNCH BROTHERS at Woodville Town Hall
Reviewed by Ray Smith, Sunday 14th July 2019As I arrived at the Woodville Town Hall to collect my tickets for the performance, I was met by an enormous crowd waiting for the doors to open. Amongst that crowd were some of the finest musicians in Adelaide, from every genre imaginable. A classical violinist or two, jazz players, bluegrass banjo players, folk musicians, blues musicians, rock musicians, and members of pop/indie ensembles, all gathered together to witness a performance of the genre defying Punch Brothers. It was my first visit to the Woodville Town Hall and it is a stunning venue. It is an elegant heritage building, boasting a traditional proscenium, chandeliers, polished floors and superb acoustics. As I took my seat the stage itself looked a little bare, a rectangular carpet with a single, centrally placed microphone was all that I could see. No amps, fold-back wedges, boom stands, DI boxes or multi-core cable. It looked more like a setup for a stand up comedian rather than a progressive acoustic quintet. The lights dimmed, the musicians entered the stage and the audience erupted, and what a large and diverse audience they were. I noticed the double bass player, Paul Kowert, plugging in a lead to his instrument's pickup, but I couldn't see any signs of electronics on the other instruments, just a single lead snaking across the stage from the solitary mic. The ensemble positioned themselves around the central mic and, after a brief but warm welcome from mandolinist, Chris Thile, began their first offering for the evening. I was struck by the minimalism of the works, as Thile's mandolin flicked between lightning fast melodic phrases and muted, percussive pulses, Noam Pikelny's banjo answering with cool precision. Gabe Witcher's violin spat out sharp, pizzicato bullets before sweeping legato lines from the bow, with Chris Eldridge's guitar maintaining order with clearly enunciated chords laid gently onto the soft bed of Kowert's bass lines. Thile's high voice blended into the mix as a delicate, fragile layer supported by harmonies and responses from Eldridge and Kowert, Witcher's lower register rounding out the chords. The music is very complex both in its writing and its arrangement, and has more in common with classical forms than those of bluegrass that the ensembles instrumentation would suggest. The arrangements demand an extraordinary tightness from the players as the pieces swell and fade, and the on stage communication between the players required to maintain that tightness was very evident. Soloists moved closer to the microphone as supporting players moved back in a subtle choreography that allowed the audience to experience visually the physical on stage mixing of the sounds. A truly acoustic experience. Polyrhythmic, syncopated pieces in compound time, with enormous dynamic changes, busied themselves under the soft, floating voices, as all five players demonstrated a relentless virtuosity to an adoring audience. The two or three actual bluegrass pieces that were played were master classes in the genre, and were greeted with explosive responses from the crowd. Chris Eldridge's needle sharp flat picking, blindingly fast question and answer phrases from Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny, classical double stopping from Gabe Witcher, and Paul Kowert's double bass doing things that I'm pretty sure double basses aren't supposed to do. This was a superb concert, a display of next level musicianship in pieces that simply defy classification.