Early in the Austin City Limits taping last night, Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile mentioned an episode of the landmark PBS program from 1990 featuring Strength in Numbers, a supergroup once composed of Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Jerry Douglas.
Today, Strength in Numbers might be an obscure reference to the general public, but they're still beloved by admirers of adventurous acoustic music, and each member remains among the most talented on the planet at their instrument.
“We wanted to be them,” Thile claimed.
Scary as it sounds, the Punch Brothers might have surpassed Strength in Numbers. There’s not another ensemble at work today who play as intricately and with as much heart without showing off. A lot of what the Punch Brothers do is bluegrass based, but the Brooklyn quintet brings new textures to the music, an electronic vibe that's otherworldly.
The 90-minute-plus performance drew heavily from the group's new disc, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which leaps beyond what they’ve done before, although it's weighed down at times by abstract lyrics. Classical, jazz, folk, pop, and jam were all in the mix, yet especially surprising was the range of cover material, from Jimmie Rodgers' “Brakeman’s Blues” to Radiohead’s “Kid A.”
That the latter was seamlessly melded into the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch tune “Wayside/Back in Time” showed these Brothers don’t think like everybody else. New cuts “Movement and Location” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me” demonstrated a new direction for acoustic music, making fiddle and banjo sound like keyboards without electronic manipulation.
For an encore, the youngbloods – also playing tonight at a sold-out Antone's – got down to their roots, dedicated to two recently deceased musical giants. Earl Scruggs' “Ground Speed” was unleashed with aplomb, followed by a rowdy rendition of the Band’s “Ophelia,” fiddle player Gabe Witcher hollering his best Levon Helm as locals shouted and grinned right along.
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