For the opening night of the EFG London Jazz Festival there might have been an appetite for bombast and glitz. Instead, Punch Brothers shunned the scale the Barbican stage offered and instead chose to cluster around a single microphone pitched centre stage in the middle of a rug. This established as a starting point an attractive visual minimalism: there were no cluttering amplifiers or tangling leads stretching across the stage, just five well-suited men in harmonious closeness. The bigger impact, however, was the audio. A dynamic range from the tender to the raucous was achieved by each musician performing synchronised shoe-shuffling cross-carpet lunges towards the mic. Elsewhere, counter-melodies rose, weaved and entwined as violinist Gabe Witcher and banjo player Noam Pikelny leant forward and ducked out again around Chris Thile’s vocals. The hall’s acoustic caught every last click of a closing syllable.
Thile was on charismatic form and a joy to see returning to the Festival, having previously taken to the same stage (and possibly rug) with Brad Mehldau for last year‘s programme. At the music’s most percussive his angular limbs jutted and convulsed with each chop of his mandolin. At its most tender, his voice swirled in harmony with guitarist Chris Eldridge around contrapuntal melodies. The set featured tracks from their latest album All Ashore, paired with ‘odes to great Tiki cocktails’. Kitsch alcohols aside, the fruit punch at the heart of their performance was five musicians in absolute mastery of their trade.
It has become an accepted inevitability of a touring American band’s set that a ‘Trump apology’ has to feature. At the end of a week where our own government teetered on the bridge of collapse and dismay, the reference was all the more unifying: the relevance of their track Just Look at this Mess doesn’t look set to weaken anytime soon. Thankfully the unbridled pairing of sensitivity and joy in Punch Brother’s unique form of bluegrass chamber music made for a handsome soundtrack to lift us through and beyond.