The Punch Brothers are beautiful bluegrass gods who we are not worthy of, yet for some reason they came to our beautiful Melbourne last week and filled the lovely Melbourne Recital Centre (and our hearts) with their own special brand of folky goodness. The boys haven’t hit our shores for almost 4 years, and have a surprisingly broad and large fanbase for the niche they fill. I grew up in Victoria’s folk music scene and within seconds of entering the building I had already identified a good portion of fellow familiar folkies, all just as excited as me. I have seen only one of the Punch Brothers play previously, watching Chris Thile and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau perform instrumentals together a few years ago, but watching the full band together is a completely different experience.
An Evening With the Punch Brothers was an almost religious experience. Changing their usual set up of individual mics spread across the stage, the five (un-biological) Brothers circled around a single condenser mic that broadcast them more clearly than I ever thought a single piece of tech could. I’d had a miserable week but from the moment they took the stage their energy and happiness was infectious and I couldn’t stop smiling in my seat. Chris Thile was passionately jealous of Melbourne’s great coffee scene, bemoaning his early flight and rattling off some of our best roasters, all opening after his flight left. If we didn’t already love him for his angelic voice, he would’ve won us over through coffee themed compliments. I wasn’t at the band’s last Melbourne event, but I heard that the setup of things had made the night seem a bit rigid – that was not the case on this night. Armed with instruments aplenty, the Punch Brothers took us through tracks old and new, and a few choice covers, each taking it in turns to flow around the mic for a spotlight before letting another in, joining in together when harmonies were needed, and stepping away to the sides for tuning. My personal highlight was their version of my favourite song, Another New World – technically a cover but the Punch Brothers version is uniquely magical, and it felt like it was being sung directly to me.
The dynamics of the night were the greatest part. Intermittent banter and joking endeared each individual bandmate and showed the familiarity that comes after 10 years of playing together. The casual and relaxed ambience between songs contrasted with the intensity of their playing – although each musician is so talented it all looked effortless, songs building and fading with ease and passion and a mandolin being strummed so hard Thile apologised to it when the song finished.
I didn’t know a hall that seats 1000 could ever feel so intimate, but there were moments every other human seemed to melt away. I was brought to laughter and tears a few times, brought to my feet a few more, and each song has even more of a place in my heart than it did before.
Jasmin Ashton is a PR nerd and writer/designer from Melbourne with feelings about pretty much everything. Find them at @Jasmanna.