I saw Nickel Creek just once, at the Vic in Chicago, almost — God — 8 years ago. I genuinely have no idea why I decided I wanted to see them back then, because while I always enjoyed them, I was never what you would call a huge fan; I suspect it was because it was very early in my time in Chicago, and I was bored and lonely and restless, and I wanted to see shows so badly but had no idea how to go about finding a local scene, so I just plucked every familiar name whatsoever out of the Reader’s concert listings and went to those shows instead. What I do remember is that it was close to Christmas, and the Ex went with me, which is strange because he was not always (ever) in the habit of even pretending to be enthusiastic about things I loved.
I took my little Canon 35mm point-and-shoot camera to that show. Probably somewhere in my enormous Tupperware of photos stored in the Alpha Site’s living room closet are a few photos from that show, overlit with on-board flash or not lit at all, just a smear of color. Maybe they’re on one of the stray rolls of ancient, unidentified, undeveloped film sitting on my bookcase — I got my first digital camera for Christmas that year, and shooting film was retired for almost five years. I don’t know where they are. They’re probably make me wince, if I could find them.
I remember that it was a good show. And I remember being deeply, deeply smitten by Chris Thile, the baby-faced (and baby-aged, then, too — Thile’s a year younger than I am, and I was a wide-eyed 22 year old) mandolin prodigy around whom Nickel Creek revolved. The Ex is gone, I haven’t lived in Chicago in more than five years, but damn if I’m not still utterly smitten by Chris Thile, y’all.
(Every song in the world has a story, you know. There’s a line of history to be traced, which is why I tell the internet about things like going to see Nickel Creek in Chicago in 2002. And because, frankly — well. Because.)
The Punch Brothers are bluegrass, by instrumentation, but avant garde bluegrass, too clever by half for someone like me who loves music but has a bit of a tin ear and little formal training in composition or theory; I don’t have the words to describe them. They’re bluegrass engineered by someone who is, by most accounts, the most talented mandolin player currently performing. I don’t know how you define that; proficiency or ear for a line or technical or artistic skills. Something in there.
I know a lot of mandolin players — well, fine, I personally know two people who are capable of playing the mandolin, only one of whom would probably call himself a mandolin player — and thanks to Bristol Rhythm & Roots, have a deep fondness for the instrument, and that thing I have about dudes with beards and banjos, I see mandolin players on a regular basis. Justin from the New Familiars is very, very good, and I think anyone, regardless of talent, would be hard pressed to replicate what he does in his band if dropped down in the center of it and asked to do so; what Justin does is his rock and roll band is fairly singular in lovely way, and I adore him. John Teer from Chatham County Line is a tremendous player, the obvious centerpiece of that band, musically.
But Chris Thile is, without a doubt, the single best mandolin player working today; he is otherworldly, and the best thing about the Punch Brothers is that he has surrounded himself with other musicians who are, if not quite as virtuoso as he is, absolutely able to match his pace and his vision. They played for nearly two hours, a mix of Antifogmatic tracks and Punch tracks, stuff from the albums Thile released under his own name, and a wealth of fantastic covers — an absolutely kickin’ version of “Ophelia”, the Strokes’ “Heart In A Cage” (recorded on How To Grow A Woman From The Ground originally), Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back In Time)”, an old Carter Family tune, and finally a startling, fascinating cover of “Icarus Smicarus” by Welsh alterna-punk rockers Mclusky. I have a theory about what covers say about the bands who play them, but mostly it boils down to: I don’t see bands with shitty taste. (“Heart In A Cage” is one of my favorite things that Thile’s ever recorded, cover or original or concerto alike.)
I am putting a moratorium on my discussions of crowds, because it turns out that I am horrified by 99.99% of humanity and generally wish everyone would just go away, but I will say this for the crowd: they loved the shit out of this band. An almost full house at the Cradle and they were often reverently silent, which creeps me out but worked absolutely for the show, because Punch Brothers’ music relies so fiercely on particular moments of silence and stillness amongst the clamor of their bluegrass, and you could have heard a pin drop in the Cradle, when you needed to. And the band was great back — chatty and funny, cheerful and top of the scale high energy; they seemed genuinely pleased to be in the NC, in Carrboro, at the Cradle playing for this crowd, and that’s never a bad environment to see a show in. It’s a pretty damn good one, in fact, and the crowd gets big credit for that.
Except for the girl standing behind me who didn’t know that “Ophelia” was a cover. I am not into that at all, you guys. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am truly baffled whenever I encounter someone who has no idea who the Band was.
It was a lovely night, and I am so glad I went.