With Punch Brothers, 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Chris Thile has succeeded not so much in reinventing bluegrass music as in exploding it in a wild burst of lyricism, virtuosity, and fascinating idiosyncrasy. The group, which includes bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher, played to a packed and highly appreciative crowd at the Lobero on Tuesday night, and Thile was clearly still riding the wave of energy generated by his recent honor. He danced, he sang, he effused about the hall and its ideal acoustics, but most of all he used his soul-stirring way with a mandolin to draw flames of improvisation and dialogue from the talented ensemble.
Punch Brothers were preceded by a notable opening act from Los Angeles called the Milk Carton Kids. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan used acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies, and lots of deadpan humor to thoroughly enchant and delight the audience, spinning random comments from the crowd into hilarious rejoinders and consistently finding funny and interesting ways to reach beyond everyone’s expectations.
Musically though, the night was all about Punch Brothers, who are among the most nimble and high flying of string ensembles. Numbers like “Movement and Location” and “New York City,” off their latest full-length album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, were superb, while songs from Ahoy!, their even more recent EP, such as the set-closing “Moonshiner,” were possibly even better. At the moment, Thile seemingly can do no wrong, and those fortunate enough to hear his clean tenor and virtuosic mandolin playing in this group and on this tour are not likely to forget him.