Old met new and stringed instruments of all shapes took over the stage at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre Friday night, as The Gibson Brothers and Noam Pikelny and Friends served up a double-whammy of modern bluegrass.
Both bands had the sold-out crowd in the palms of their hands throughout the three-hour runtime, picking their way through instrumentals and vocal tunes, upbeat jigs and heartfelt ballads. The common thread — besides the stylistic similarities of both bands — was the stellar playing offered, with the ensemble playing and solos pushing the songs to their limits.
The Gibson Brothers, as the hometown band (Eric and Leigh Gibson grew up in Clinton County, and Leigh lives even closer now, in Scotia), took the headlining slot, although the evening was evenly divided. Opening with the chugging “I’m Coming Home to Stay,” the five-piece group wasted no time revving the crowd up. “The Railroad Line” came next, featuring Leigh’s first lead vocal of the evening — although Eric and Leigh more often than not harmonized together throughout the evening, culminating with their complicated duet on “The Happy Sunny Side of Life” mid-set.
While Eric and Leigh were the stars, leading the tunes and gently ribbing each other between songs as only brothers can, there were no slouches onstage. Fiddler Clayton Campbell, bassist Mike Barber and mandolinist Joe Walsh got their first chance to shine early in the set on a Tom Petty song, “A Cabin Down Below” — Walsh in particular looked as if he might have broken his mandolin if he had played with any more intensity. The band ran through a couple of instrumentals sprinkled throughout the set, which let everyone stretch out even further.
Highlights included Greg Brown’s “Early” and a new song from the band’s upcoming album, “They Called it Music” — that’s a mission statement if there ever were one. “A Red Letter Day for the Blues” pushed the players to their limits, as each took turns soloing over the song’s rapid-fire chord changes. But perhaps best of all was the melancholy “Dreams That End Like This,” featuring a plaintive, yearning vocal performance from Leigh and a meandering tempo that proved this band does just as well walking as running.
Punch Brothers banjoist extraordinaire Noam Pikelny hit the stage first to an already packed house, accompanied by his five-piece band, billed as “and friends.” Pikelny has some talented friends — guitarist Chris Eldridge also plays with the Punch Brothers; vocalist Aoife O’Donovan is with Crooked Still; mandolinist Jesse Cobb plays with the Infamous Stringdusters; bassist Sam Grisman is the son of David Grisman; and fiddler Luke Bulla is part of Lyle Lovett’s band.
The band lived up to its pedigree throughout its hour-long set, which kicked off with the upbeat “Jim Thompson’s Horse.” O’Donovan came out for “Gone From Here,” which also gave everyone in the band a chance to solo over the song’s unusual chord changes. They all made it look so effortless, especially Pikelny — the instrumental “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” was filled with his fluid playing. Later in the set, Pikelny and Bulla took the spotlight for the duet “Pineywoods,” weaving their playing together and building to a powerful finale.
O’Donovan wasn’t the only strong vocalist onstage — Bulla’s vocal turn on “Bob McKinney” provided a crisp contrast to O’Donovan’s breathy delivery on the chorus harmonies, while Eldridge dueted with O’Donovan on “Mean Mother Blues” late in the set. But perhaps the best vocal of the set belonged to O’Donovan, with an emotional turn on a bluegrass-ified cover of Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird” that left the crowd in silent awe.