Punch Brothers deliver intoxicating, emotive set at Capitol Theatre in Clearwater

A lucky crowd drank it all in.

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At one point in Punch Brothers’ 19-song Clearwater set, mandolin player Chris Thile — fresh off an absorbent run though “Julep” — tried to share a recipe for a rarely ordered, possibly Florida-born cocktail, the Jungle Bird. The 38-year-old rattled off a list of ingredients: Blackstrap molasses, the fresh juice of limes and pineapples, Campari… the formula, rife with measurements, was detailed and tough to remember. Banjoist Noam Pikelny, who’s heard Thile run through that bit of stage banter on countless nights, jokingly called his bandmate out on the complexity and tried to share a recipe for a simpler drink he enjoys at high-end bars.

“I’m not exactly sure of the measurements,” the Grammy-nominated plucker and Leftover Salon alum said about his libation, “but I think it’s equal proportions malted barley, corn, water, hops — it’s called the Budweiser.”

The rare Bay area visit from the New York collective of modern-American country-classical composers was certainly an ornate affair, but like any long night with friends, a few tiki cocktails or even Bud heavies, the evening with Punch Brothers ended up being simple and intoxicating in the most captivating of ways.

Harmonies from “My Oh My” and Gabe Witcher’s red-hot, plucked and bowed, fiddle on “Movement and Location” combined to quickly set fire to the kindling of two recognizable Punch Brothers tunes, but the quintet quickly pivoted toward the spacious title track from its Grammy-winning 2018 album, All Ashore, where Thile, Pikelny and Witcher — along with guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert — shook out their sea legs, planted those stems on the stage, and delivered a sprawling tune that would not be tethered to a singular tempo, tone or temperature. The Brothers’ performance certainly did just enough to retain the interests of bluegrass purists (the speed on Blind Willie McTell’s “Boll Weevil” and the band’s own “Flippen (The Flip)” both drew big cheers from a sold-out Capitol Theatre crowd), but the band’s prowess most impressively manifested itself in more subtle, yet still magnificent, ways. The fingers on Thile’s right hand fluttered so fast that they looked slow on “New York City.” Kowert was playful on “Magnet,” and he turned the fourth movement of a 17th century Debussy piano suite (“Passepied”) into an absolute joy-bringer; his low-key funk also played foil to Witcher’s bowed fiddle squees on the overtly-seductive middle sections of “Just Look at This Mess.”

The loquacious version of Thile who plays host on public radio’s Live From Here was nowhere to be found on Friday, however, and fittingly so. In Punch Brothers, the MacArthur genius is merely a cog within an ensemble capable of creating pin-drop quiet on an apocalyptic break-up song turned 2018 inspo-jam, “This Is The Song (Good Luck).” In this band, Thile is just one guy helping tease up a therapy session’s worth of tension on “The Angel Of Doubt” where the nervous, muted clicking of strummed mandolin and guitar gave way to an almost Hamilton-esque rap outro.

Stage banter is minimal in a Punch Brothers set, but Thile does play mouthpiece well when he has to. The composer was a mighty fine interpreter on a dramatic cover of Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” and he delivered an emotional knockout punch on All Ashore highlight “The Gardner,” where the first verse initially presented like a meditation on child-rearing before the song quickly unfurled into a gut-wrenching observation on one working-class fella who toils away at a garden while a family pays him little to no mind. It’s unclear whether the the guy's family is his own, but ambiguity is the crux of the tune which seemingly begs listeners to take a moment and sympathize with those who may seem like the lowliest and most humble people in their lives. Like the Jungle Bird cocktail, life is complicated. Lyrics from songs like “The Gardener” communicate that in impossibly beautiful ways, but the words also challenge listeners to be open to different ways of interacting with the world around them.

And if concertgoers needed something with less verbiage, the Punch Brothers’ shape-shifting “Jungle Bird” tune relayed the same message just as well. The song (another All Ashore highlight) is a ridiculously fun abstraction of bluegrass. It grabs one of America’s oldest musical forms, melts it down and recasts it as something that’s still familiar but wholly re-invented, too. It’s a reminder that everything is changing all the time. Like Friday night’s show, that change is both a slow burn and a blur — let’s just remember to take time to really drink it all in and share it with a friend.

Setlist

Movement and Location
My Oh My
All Ashore
Flippen (The Flip) [Väsen]
Boll Weevil [Blind Willie McTell]
This Is The Song (Good Luck)
The Angel Of Doubt
Three Dots and a Dash
Another New World [Josh Ritter]
Just Look at This Mess
Magnet
The Gardener
Passepied [Claude Debussy]
New York City
Julep
Jungle Bird
It's All Part of the Plan

The Hops of Guldenberg
Rye Whiskey

Listen to songs from the setlist via Spotify. Follow @CL_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news. Subscribe to our newsletter, too.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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