Live review: Punch Brothers string rhythmic duality at El Rey
The band flexes its bluegrass, instrumental chops in a stirring set that featured opener Jon Brion.
The first four songs of the Punch Brothers' show Tuesday night at the El Rey Theatre said a lot about what kind of group the Punch Brothers are: two originals, one about a relationship and one about a bartender; a Norman Blake instrumental; and a loping cover of "Heart in a Cage" by the Strokes, which frontman Chris Thile referred to as a "rival New York bluegrass band."
The Strokes, Thile said, trounced the Punch Brothers in the black-leather department. "But we've got them in liver function," claimed banjo player Noam Pikelny, who added, "which actually makes them the more credible bluegrass band."
In truth, the Punch Brothers seem pretty unworried by the notion of credibility. Originally convened to accompany Thile on a 2006 solo album, this five-piece string band operates happily in the interstices between jazz, folk, country, rock and pop; it's less interested in demonstrating its seriousness in one of those areas than in drawing lines between them (and then blurring those lines).
Not that the Punch Brothers aren't to be taken seriously. At the El Rey they flexed the kind of instrumental chops that even a non-player can admire, picking with remarkable speed in Gillian Welch's "Wayside (Back in Time)" and delivering tightly woven vocal harmonies in "Don't Need No," from the band's latest album, "Antifogmatic."
Compositionally too, songs like "You Are" and "Me and Us" revealed a deep love of tricky melodies and rhythmic complexity; "Me and Us," in particular, made a convincing case for the Punch Brothers' consideration alongside such avant-roots titans as Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny.
Yet technique never seemed like more than a means to an end Tuesday, and frequently that end was a good joke, as in "Rye Whiskey" (the subject of which "makes your baby cuter," Thile sang) and in an appealingly deadpan rendition of "Gronlandic Edit," by the flamboyant electro-glam outfit Of Montreal.
The Punch Brothers were joined for that number by Jon Brion, who produced "Antifogmatic" and opened the concert; Brion made himself the band's de facto percussionist, thumping out a beat on his guitar while Thile and his mates dug into yet another of the liminal spaces that define their sound.
For an encore they literalized that in-between quality with a tune Thile introduced as "our Valentine's Day slash recession song." (How many of those are floating around?) It was "This Is the Song (Good Luck)," the lovely ballad that closes "Antifogmatic" with a simple declaration of resolve during tough times. "This is the song where I sit still," Thile sang, and for the first time all night that was almost true.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: The progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, led by Chris Thile on mandolin, center, performed at the El Rey. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times