Three weeks ago, I went to see one of my favorite bands in concert. They were terrible. This band of young men—young, meaning able to move—just stood there and got it over with. They played forty-five minutes before their first and only encore. Then, they told us to “Have a good night!” I wanted to tell them, “Yeah, you too, with the sixty bucks I paid for a crap show.” This band will remain nameless. (Ah-hem, rhymes with “Lings of Keon.”) REGARDLESS of this, I have to tell you about the concert I saw last night, because it was anything but terrible.
When I saw the set list for Charleston’s Spoleto Fest 2009 , I recognized but one name: Chris Thile. However, for me, this is a huge name. This is the name of my favorite mandolin player—a man I used to listen to in his Nickel Creek days. This is a man who has been referred to as “one of the most interesting and inventive musicians of his generation.” In 2006, he joined forces with four other musicians to form the Punch Brothers. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the result is totally mind-blowing.” Well, after last night’s show, my mind has been blown.
Let’s start with the venue. The Punch Brothers show was at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard. The Cistern is located in the heart of campus, downtown, at the end of one of my favorite historic Charleston streets, Glebe Street. It is such a beautiful location that they used it as a backdrop in the Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger flick The Patriot. It’s what it sounds like—a yard, surrounded by high wrought iron fences and lush, leafy bushes. At the back of this yard is Randolph Hall, built in 1828, complete with thick, off-white columns and wide, green shutters to protect the windows from hurricanes. The stage was on top of the old city cistern, where people used to do their laundry before washers and dryers were around. Angel oaks and Spanish moss tickled each side of the wide, unadorned stage, and I swear I heard angels singing.
Wait, no that was the Punch Brothers and their three-part harmonies. Once they were on stage, they never left. They did one huge set that went on for a good two hours. And I never stopped smiling. Some of the songs made me slap my knee and stomp my foot; some of the songs were so full of minor chords, I wanted to cry. The five instruments—mandolin, violin, banjo, upright bass, and guitar—were made for each other and made for the bluegrass/jazz feel of Chris Thile’s somehow organized improvisations. One of my favorite tunes? How to Grow a Woman from the Ground—a melancholy, quiet arrangement, soaring up through the Spanish moss with the help of Thile’s quirky upper-tenor vocals. And how about the ambitious four-movement chamber suite, The Blind Leaving the Blind? Again, I wanted to cry, this time when he announced, “This is the last movement!” No! Play forever! Pleeeeeeeease, Chris Thile, play forever! At one point, my companion for the concert turned to me and said, “Why is it that I always fall in love with the band I’m watching?” I don’t always, but I did last night.
Said companion and I went downtown to grab a beer after the show. I didn’t realize we were giggling, but we must have been. Two strangers came up to my friend and me to ask, “Where were you? You look so happy! We want to go where you were!” Too bad for them, though. They missed the show.
If you have a chance to see these guys, see them. The Punch Brothers, featuring Chris Thile. If you can, see them outside, surrounded by Spanish moss. It’s the closest you’ll get to heaven without actually being there. For more info, go to their website: http://www.punchbrothers.com.