As modern folk supergroups go, it doesn’t get much more super than Punch Brothers and I’m With Her. Each group in its own right is pretty super: Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, Paul Kowert, Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, and Noam Pikelny are heavily awarded masters of their respective instruments, and each of the women of I’m With Her – Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan – are burning bright with their own solo careers.
It’s hard to imagine the logistics that must have gone into creating this 14-city tour, dubbed “American Acoustic,” especially when two of the participants — Watkins and O’Donovan — are now visibly pregnant. But the sold-out crowd at the North Carolina Museum of Art’s beautiful outdoor stage in Raleigh sure appreciated the effort.
Under a moon blurred by passing shreds of thin clouds, these musicians — with frequent collaborator Julian Lage — pulled from their own repertoires as well as the classic American(a) songbook. Right off the bat, as the sun set and the summer day let go of its heat a little, O’Donovan, Thile, and Jarosz took the stage with Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone,” a harmony-rich aural ahhhhhhh that set the mood for the sets to come. Then, one after another, came the “please welcome our dear friend …” introductions that brought a new member of the ensemble to the stage, as others rotated out. It eventually morphed into a set of with just the trio of I’m With Her, with many of the songs pulled from their new EP, Little Lies. And after a brief intermission, Punch Brothers had a set of their own.
But the real magic, of course, was in the many songs that pulled these musicians together, adding a new flavor to songs that made fans love them in the first place. Some power from several Punch Brothers added extra oomph to Watkins’ already forceful “Young in All the Wrong Ways,” and even Nickel Creek — the ur band for Watkins and Thile — got a nod with a red-hot rendition of “Destination” driven along by Pikelny’s banjo. A high point of the evening came when O’Donovan brought soulful vocals to Lage’s “Apple Tree” — a scorcher of a song that built and built until all hands were on deck. As they waited for their cue, the musicians not playing at the beginning of that song (and others that similarly brought players in one by one) sat lined up along the sides of the stage. Holding their instruments, they sipped cocktails (or water) and watched and listened. You could tell from the smiles on their faces that they knew they had the best seats in the house.
The main set ended with “Father Adieu,” led by Jarosz. The song unfolded with these nine musicians in their prime gathered around two mics, stepping seamlessly around each other as they added to the sound. Then, I’m With Her shared one mic, with Punch Brothers on the other, to take a chorus or two as a round. Soon it was one big group again, building the song until the end, when it ended on one perfect note, everyone together.
What a metaphor, right? Taken separately, these artists are giants in our little corner of the music world. Together, they’ve formed groups that have pushed roots music forward in ways that excite and astonish. But as one big ensemble, they’re family. A brotherhood and sisterhood of bright minds and stunning talent who get the job done while never forgetting that it’s supposed to be fun. Right along with them, those of us watching under the stars arrived somewhere together, the same note lingering in our hearts and the same feeling of having had the best seat in the house for something very special.