Amped up American Acoustic: Punch Brothers and I’m With Her
In a lot of ways, live reviews are meant to serve as a hybrid, first hand recollection and motivator for generating interest in the next performance and overall tour of whomever the focus is currently on. This is no different, as there are still several cities that remain for the American Acoustic tour that brings together the fluid and multi-layered energies of Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile (Mandolin), Chris Eldridge (Guitar), Paul Kowert (Bass), Noam Pikelny (Banjo), and Gabe Witcher (violin), with the simultaneously new but seasoned super combination of Sarah Jarosz (Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar), Aoife O’Donovan (Guitar), and Sara Watkins (Guitar, Violin, Ukelele) as I’m With Her, and the mesmerizing proficiency of Julian Lage (Guitar). However, despite the fact that there is likely to be a good amount of common ground between shows (which ND assistant editor Stacy Chandler can attest to from her experience the other night at the North Carolina Museum of Art), what really is liable to stand out throughout all of them is the nuance. Thursday night’s show in the Upper East Side at the Beacon Theater fueled this point well.
A good amount of the artists at hand (namely, the entirety of I’m With Her,) getting a chance to enjoy a quick pit stop in New York City, where several of them call home, translated to the Beacon Theatre being packed with people projecting a collective mood of excitement and mild nostalgia. Ends of conversations bleeding over others as the theater filled, were all about previous encounters and show attendances with the bands or parts of the bands everyone was there to now collectively witness at once. It was like a reunion and, being in somewhat of a home turf situation only made it feel that much more special. As Thile vivaciously proclaimed in the beginning of Punch Brothers’ set, “New York City is my favorite place in the world to play music!”
Honestly though, to recount past this summation of the energy that propelled the show well into the night – culminating in a total of three hours of nearly non-stop performance – is almost an undertaking of rote irrelevance. The songs played by everyone were a mix of familiar originals from various albums, across what is undoubtedly a collectively massive discography, covers that have been reimagined with witty ears and delivered with astute musicianship, (Nickel Creek’s “Destination” with an infusion of banjo is downright wicked.) and originals that need to be attended to in-person to be fully appreciated because of their potpourri-like character. (The unveiling of Punch Brothers’ “Comey’s Waltz” reflected Thile’s lyrical knack for referencing the present with humor and tongue-in-cheek lassie-faire.) The things about the American Acoustic shows that can be articulated with ease and clarity are its laid back atmosphere, its frequently shouting and cheering audiences – who have no qualms of doing so during the middle of a song and that’s just fine – and the likening of the stage presence of every person on that bill to that of an enthusiastic party guest.
The reason for so much ambiguity in recounting New York’s dose of American Acoustic? The traditional formula for a concert went utterly out the window. Proper introductions of each act and set were given but, after those thin walls of separation were erected between Julian Lage, I’m With Her, and Punch Brothers, each was subsequently knocked down without hesitation. The show played out much more like a celebration of the three acts’ friendships and long established appreciation for one another’s artistries, because there was no separation. Every one of the women in I’m With Her were backed up in varying combinations by all or changing parts of Punch Brothers, who also interchanged or enhanced guitar parts with the strength of Lage’s own guitar style. Additionally, one could almost say that the show was just a few props and set changes off from being like a mini installment of “A Prairie Home Companion;” complete with spontaneous humor to boot – like the explanation of I’m With Her’s origins:
“So, as you know, we’ve been a band ever since Punch Brothers ‘created us.’ Men always try and take credit for everything.”
Other bits and pieces of hilarity unique to this night of folk greatness became instantly sticking points of laughter; like the proposal that Punch Brothers break into the Ghostbusters theme after playing “Julia”:
“You’re playing some “Julia” and then you totally want to break into…Ghostbusters. Yes! That’s just what I was thinking! But that’d be too obvious!”
Yet, these individualizing fragments of the night are not what should encourage exploring American Acoustic. A detailing of this overall experience sounds enticing for many reasons but none of that really matters. Even presenting the evening like a punchy headline, and saying it’s a show filled with laughs, love, lust, seamless musical transitions and a capella that could rival established choirs, at best sounds like old fan hyperbole and maybe it is or maybe it’s just being detail descriptive. Either way, what ultimately stands out about the music these men and women play is nothing that can be outlined with the most detailed of facts. It’s a pure feeling of amazement that leaves some speechless and others hollering because their joys can’t be contained. It’s an electric current that covers the skin, begging to break inside and remain there so it can be felt over and over again. There’s an intellectual understanding of what notes, arrangements, and harmonies were performed but the American Acoustic isn’t about mere comprehension. It’s about knowing that no matter how sharp your photos are, no matter how many video clips appear on YouTube, and no matter how enthusiastically you recall every piece of the night, it’s going to come to an end so the only way to know it – to really know it – is to go, sit, and soak in every note; realizing that what’s to come can’t be captured or held, only savored with every beat of your heart with the music.