By: Derek Jung
After a magical Friday night at MusicNOW with Kronos Quartet, Jennifer Koh, and Chris Thile, I was even more ecstatic to see Thile's main project The Punch Brothers perform at the festival's closing night. I had never been to the Cincinnati Masonic Center before, and honestly I didn't even know it existed until the show was announced a few months ago. To my surprise, it's right next door to the Taft Theatre, where I had been a week earlier seeing the Experience Hendrix Tour. The building itself is a bit of a maze, with different meeting rooms and several long corridors surrounding the main performance space. The large auditorium was much bigger than I imagined, with two large medieval castle pillars rising on either side of the stage and steep, narrow, banister-less steps leading up into the seating area. A small floor area in front of the stage was also seated. The room itself was decorated with various crests and I could almost picture some of the masonic meetings that had happened there in the past. Each of the performers commented on the beauty of the room, and the acoustics were great.
The Australian duo Luluc were the first to peform. With two guitars and beautiful harmonies, the pair dazzled the mostly full theater over the course of their set. The two mentioned that they had moved from Australia to Brooklyn, where they were neighbors with Aaron Dessner of The National, who produced their latest album, Passerby, named a top album of 2014 on numerous lists, including NPR's Bob Boilen.
Next up was acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, who performed with only a banjo and an acoustic guitar. While is music was fairly minimalist, the stories were a prime example of why folk music still thrives in so many places around the world today. He told a story in between songs about how he would hear a song performed live and the story wouldn't exactly flow properly, but then he'd hear it performed live another time and it turned out that the first time the performer just forgot two of the verses. He explained how he liked the version that was missing the two verses better. Sam's singing was reflective of what you'd expect from a folk singer, a little off key, but mellow and expressive. I enjoyed his set, but there were times when his voice did come across a little too rough for my taste.
After a short break, The Punch Brothers took the stage to a roaring round of applause. The musicianship of every member of The Punch Brothers is phenomenal. Chris Thile, of course, is talented on mandolin, but I think he is very underrated as a lead vocalist as well. He really has some great pipes. Gabe Witcher is extremely talented on the fiddle, as is Noam Pikelny on the banjo. Chris Eldridge held down the fort playing acoustic bluegrass guitar and the biggest unsung hero might be Paul Kowert on the upright bass. Really, there is no weakest link to this group of talented, distinguished musicians, and I really enjoyed that they each had at least one song to showcase their respective instrument in a solo. This kept the show from becoming what I thought it might be - a mandolin solo fest. In fact, it was everything but that. Thile, while he was the charismatic performer solo on Friday night, did not speak nearly as much as I was expecting; Noam did most of the banter in between songs and was very funny. The only extended mandolin solo came near the end of the set.
The band played a good mix from their discography, spanning from their most recent release, The Phosphorescent Blues, all the way back to at least their sophomore release Antifogmatic. The audience ate up everything that happened on stage, and after two standing ovations, Thile commented that every show from now on needed to be in Cincinnati. Chris, if you want to play in Cincinnati every day, I'd happily attend.
My only complaint of the night is for the crowd, who had the hardest time not knocking over their plastic drink cups. The loud pattering echo of kicked cups interrupted a few of the quieter songs in the set and broke my concentration.
Other than that, it was a fantastic closing to another successful installment of MusicNOW. I can't wait to see what next year brings. Memorial Hall's renovations will be completed; Music Hall will be in the midst of its own. I'd love to see the Emery Theatre be a featured venue next year, especially since The National have a history there already, having performed there in 2012.
Also shout-out to the guy who cut in front of me at the merch booth and bought the last vinyl copy of The Phosphorescent Blues. Prick.
Check out a fan-shot video below of "Familiarity", the final song of the encore.
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: