Review: Punch Brothers at Woodville Town Hall

Innovative US ensemble tackle Tame Impala and their Grammy-winning 2018 All Ashore in an ‘emergency session’ of the Adelaide Guitar Festival.

“We’re thrilled to be back here in Adelaide,” Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny says drolly midway through their set. “We’re here, I was told, this is kind of an emergency session of the Adelaide Guitar Festival… they had to call an emergency session, lest the guitar fade back into obscurity. It can be suffocating, all the attention that the banjo and mandolin get. We’re gonna do whatever we can to lift the guitar up, make it known and spread the gospel of the guitar.”

He is, of course, taking the piss, because while Chris Eldridge’s excellent, nimble playing acts as a mid-frequency glue for the band’s sound, it’s the mandolin of bandleader Chris Thile, the fiddle of Gabe Witcher and Pikelny’s own banjo that more often takes centre stage.

Huddled around a single microphone amidst the 1920s splendour of the recently revived Woodville Town Hall, the group put each instrument through its paces in an opening suite marked by a Swedish-language instrumental and a hollering take on The White Stripes’ Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground. In the latter, the group fire up with the kind of barnstorming, rapidly plucked hoedown one might expect from a group sporting such  bluegrass instrumentation. But it’s Just Look At This Mess from their Grammy-winning 2018 album All Ashore that begins to reveal the scope of the group’s ambition, as they pare back the amount of notes to let us breathe in the nuances of their playing.

That album’s title track continues the trend as a descending melody from Pikelny is offset by Eldridge’s gently syncopated counter-rhythms, before Thile’s vocals simmer down to a gentler croon that recalls Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans. The single-microphone stage set up is an appropriately homey conceit, allowing the arrangements to swell and shrink as each member steps up to it. While in the louder moments of the set this affects the clarity of Thile’s lead vocals, for pieces like All Ashore it works beautifully.

Throughout the night Thile works hard as the group’s head-bobbing, mandolin shredding bandleader, exuding a certain ‘cool relief teacher energy’ – albeit one that quizzes the class not on algebra, but on whether we have tried the obscure rum cocktail recipes that various Punch Brothers songs are named after. A quick show of hands yields little recognition, but the band do their best to convey the essence of a Three Dots and a Dash regardless.

Punch Brothers have long been known for their genre-hopping reinterpretations, and in the middle of the set turn their gaze to Tame Impala’s Let It Happen. Rephrasing the original’s stomping psychedelia into a strummed singalong, the track peaks when double bassist Paul Kowert slides up his instrument’s neck to mirror the fuzz bassline that bring’s Kevin Parker’s original home. The cover forms a nice counterpoint to a similarly folk-inspired take on Eventually from the same album, memorably performed by Australian ensemble All Our Exes Live In Texas on the banks of the Torrens one or two Adelaide Festivals ago.

The band step away from the microphone and unplug their instruments for the encore, giving us an unamplified finale that acts as a fine showcase not only of the band, but the hall’s acoustics as originally intended. That is, were it not for one technically-challenged boomer somewhere in the dress circle, whose four-second-long Instagram story of a much more upbeat part of the set played on loop from a handbag – just quietly enough for no one to confidently shush the culprit, but loud enough to turn an otherwise nuanced final act into a strange kind of torture.

Thile and his Punch Brothers were memorable, but those four seconds might never leave this reviewer’s head – perhaps an emergency session on how to set your Samsung Galaxy to silent should be added to Adelaide’s festival roster.

Punch Brothers performed at Woodville Town Hall on Sunday, July 14

Header image:
Josh Goleman

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.