Glasgow, as far as it goes, is never an easy gig. From the slack-armed menace of its poppy-infused youth to the entrenched cynicism of her cirrhotic shuffling classes, the Black Eye of the Clyde has rigorously maintained a long and venerated culture of daring each and every minstrel that washes up on stage to compromise in the slightest their duty of entertainment; rewarding success with a stirring chorus of White Lightning-fume cheers and failure with a bottling in the car park. Any act can be forgiven for shying away from such a challenge, Punch Brothers included. And, from a band whose output The New York Times has termed ‘American country-classical chamber music’, one is unlikely to deduce a predilection for Glasgow’s special brew of vomit, vice and violence. But, through their charm, their panache, and above all their sublime virtuosity, for roughly one hour and 37 minutes the Punch Brothers carried all before them in a thrilling display of passion and talent, adding a feather to their cap and avoiding sutures to the abdomen.
To be sure, the cards were stacked against them. The night’s supporting act, Siobhan Miller, had dutifully cycled through a succession of tuneful but bland ballads, eliciting about as much enthusiasm from the audience as a reading of The Canterbury Tales performed by Anne Widdecombe. A Celtic sing-along elicited only token participation and the audience, whilst seemingly eager for the appearance of the headline act, declined to offer any major signs of emotional investment in the night’s proceedings. Then, after a brief intermission, the Brothers emerged, assumed their places, and…nothing. Frontman Chris Thile informed the audience the problem was a ‘missing gadget’, and turned to consult a stagehand as the auditorium’s tentative anticipation ebbed away. But, in a move that belied their experience, Thile hastily called for a ‘fiddle tune’ and the band abandoned their microphones and assembled at the front of the stage. Playing entirely acoustically the Punch Brothers launched into a tune that was at once delicate in its rawness and stunning in its ability to silence the hall, each audience member straining to hear. At its conclusion the crowd fell into riotous applause, surely spurred by the belief that they had been witness to a rare and special event. From then on, the night was under the total, masterful control of the Punch Brothers.
There is little need to proceed song-by-song, detailing an impressive solo here or innovative turnaround there. That is not the essence of live music. Rather, it should be stated that the Punch Brothers amply demonstrated that they are ‘bluegrass’ in the loosest sense of the term, and are a ‘band’ to the fullest possible extent. It is often tempting to view bluegrass/country bands as a vehicle, however well-constructed, for an individual ‘star’. In this instance the figure of Chris Thile may constitute an especially egregious case. A Grammy-winning artist at 16 (adding a second aged 21), a recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ at 30, and the arranger of Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for mandolin;, Thile is to the mandolin what Glenn Gould is to piano, what the USA is to extrajudicial killings, divisive race issues and absurd mascots for fast food chains. But, as the tones and timbres of mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar and double bass were conjured, Debussy, folk standards, experimental compositions (and, perhaps inevitably, Rye Whiskey) one became aware of the equal and essential role played by every member. Throughout each undertaking the Punch Brothers embodied brilliance, working as symbiotic organisms, each element treading in perfectly synchronised harmony along successively more convoluted paths. To studious listeners, this should come as no surprise; bassist Paul Kowert studied under Edgar Meyer while guitarist Chris Eldridge was taught by Tony Rice himself, the others having equally distinguished musical backgrounds.
As the night came to an end, there was pause for more measured contemplation. A smaller, standing venue would have been preferable, more efficiently bottling and reflecting the audience’s energy. The band chose a rather modest song for their encore, and one felt they were all too eager to leave the stage. But, as they say in Glasgow, the best smack is always cut with a bit of frying oil.