It took the Punch Brothers three songs to get to it — the progressive bluegrass quintet’s new 40-minute opus, a four-movement chamber suite called “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” And the piece took up most of the five-song, 60-minute first set, challenging the audience of approximately 400 with musical twists and turns and movements that hovered around the 10-minute mark.
Like much of the rest of the show, held at The Egg on Sunday, “The Blind” pushed the limits of what roots or bluegrass music can be. Just the fact that it’s a chamber suite written for bluegrass instrumentation says it all.
Overall, the piece was stunning. And while it could have come across as a self-conscious attempt for some kind of high-minded legitimacy, “The Blind” had all the weight and substance it promised. But it also had an accessibility in parts that might be overshadowed by its ambitions.
A sensational evening
Coupled with the rest of the show, the two-set evening, totaling roughly two hours, was simply sensational, filled with both honesty and technically stellar performances. And what was arguably most impressive was the fact that these five virtuosos all served the music. Solos, in other words, were always about the song, not about a player.
The Punch Brothers are a relatively new monster. Led by mandolin ace Chris Thile, the band came together around his vision for “The Blind” following the split of his former trio, the hugely popular Nickel Creek. Even so, the other four Punch Brothers backed up Thile on his 2006 solo album “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground.” Make no mistake — and Sunday’s show proved it — this is no backing band for Thile, either. The Punch Brothers — Thile, Chris Eldridge (guitar), Greg Garrison (bass), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Gabe Witcher (violin) — is a quintet of such deep talent it’s almost alarming.
Thile introduced “The Blind” with a touch of self-deprecating humor that belied just how serious a piece it is, as it marries folk with classical. Its first movement began with only Thile’s sparse mandolin, and then the banjo, guitar violin and bass followed quietly in that order. And, despite the high-mindedness, a large part of the first movement was catchy, instantly likable.
Dissonance in the dark
The second movement was largely slow, dark and autumnal, with lyrics centering on a relationship that’s imploding. Here, plenty of dissonance added to the dark, eerie quality, driven home more so by Thile’s quiet vocals. The third movement, meanwhile, still had those dark shades, at one point slowing to a virtual standstill, while Witcher delivered some swampy fiddle. And in the fourth movement, if it wasn’t clear already, there was the thought that this wasn’t bluegrass: it was something entirely new, with bluegrass elements certainly, but also with shades of jazz and blues.
While the composition of “The Blind” is wholly Thile’s work, the band has collaborated on several other songs, which are found along with the chamber suite on the album “Punch,” due out next week. They played them Sunday, even pulling out a few tracks that got cut from the CD, and those were equally impressive. So even their discards are brilliant.