Gig review: Punch Brothers/Rhiannon Giddens, Perth

The Punch Brothers may have been unplugged but they still managed to generate their own high voltage. Picture: Contributed
The Punch Brothers may have been unplugged but they still managed to generate their own high voltage. Picture: Contributed
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“THIS is like Bob Dylan at Newport in reverse,” quipped Punch Brothers banjo ace Noam Pikelny, as the band confronted the apparent monitor problems that plagued the initial stages of their set, in this opening concert of Perth’s Southern Fried festival of American music.

Punch Brothers / Rhiannon Giddens

Perth Concert Hall

Star rating: *****

Contrary to Dylan’s iconoclastic embracing of the electric guitar, the Punches went part-acoustic, leaving their individual microphones to cluster round a single mic front of stage.

Unplugged they may have been, but they generated their own high voltage in no uncertain manner. An instrumentally virtuosic line-up of manic mandolinist and lead singer Chris Thile, fiddler Gabe Witcher, Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert, they played several numbers from their acclaimed current album, Phosphorescent Blues, including the Beach Boys vocal harmonising of Familiarity, the insistently edgy Magnet and the hypnotic tick-tocking of Julep, with its kora-like flurries from the banjo.

Some hasty reprogramming perhaps meant less from the album than expected, and the drum kit on which Witcher doubles as percussionist got scant attention. But if the Punch Brothers defy pigeonholing – embracing both the traditional holler of Boll Weevil and the charmingly bustling Passepied, “by that legendary bluegrass composer Claude Debussy” – they certainly know where their roots lie, as evinced by the likes of Watch at Breakdown and a hell-for-leather encore of Brakeman’s Blues, Thile yodelling falsettos fit to bust.

To say that in Rhiannon Giddens they had a hard act to follow is putting it mildly. The singer, fiddler and banjoist brought the audience to its feet with a voice that could swoop from angelic soaring to earthy growl, informed by riveting emotional power and authority.

Accompanied by a quintet of drums, bass, cello, guitars and banjos, including three fellow members from her African-American band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she ranged through the melting pot of American song, bringing freshness and force to numbers by Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, as well as delving into Appalachian folk, the Civil War and even an ironically joyous puirt à beul, the legacy of slave-owning Gaels in North Carolina.

She gave us the rousing gospel of Lonesome Road and a gloriously scatting sparring match with cellist Malcolm Parson who switched to melodica for Black is the Colour. The showstopper, however, was the Odetta work song Waterboy – passionate, accusatory and utterly commanding.

Seen on 31.7.15