The Ogden Theater in Denver was the Punch Brothers’ latest sold-out stop to support their newest album, Phosphorescent Blues. The album, released in February, is a new venture showcasing a more emotional side to the otherwise extremely technical and proficient musicians that make up the band. The concern over people’s lack of ability to disconnect from today’s technology is the running theme throughout.
Opening for the night was the highly entertaining Gabriel Kahane. Taking the stage, he starts off by plunging into “Winter Song,” a stirring number that quickly held everyone’s attention. Kahane’s voice soared through theater accompanied by only his guitar. After a brief introduction and concern about an abnormally loud fog machine, he switched to his main musical vehicle, the piano. Humor becomes the main source of his songs here, starting with “Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Avenue).” This particular one deals with an apocalypse happening in LA and two individual’s love trying to prove strong enough through the “bodies hanging from car windows” and “watch(ing) half-life neon crawling.” Kahane even encouraged audience participation as he taught the chorus vocal melody for everyone to sing along, remarking that many people were now probably going through terrifying memories of embarrassing fourth grade recitals.
Kahane almost seemed to be two different people as he switched between the guitar and piano during his performance. With the guitar, the songs were haunting and charged and with the piano they were humorous and light. My two favorites from the spectrum would have to be the movement from Craiglistlieder called “Neurotic and Lonely,” in which Kahane sings out a craigslist ad about a young man’s search for a woman. And the second “Ambassador Hotel,” a beautiful, reminiscent song from his latest album, The Ambassador, that recounts the history and demise of a grand hotel.
After Kahane’s excellent job of readying the crowd, the building energy erupted from the room when the Punch Brothers took the stage. The band took off with that energy and kicked into “My Oh My” from the Phosphorescent Blues. The cover of the classic, “Boll Weevil,” followed up next as the group began showing off their impressive techniques with Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Thile on mandolin, Paul Kowert on bass, and Gabe Witcher doing double duty at both fiddle and drums.
A highlight of the night was the cover of “Another New World” (originally by Josh Ritter). The song is a harsh yet whimsical tale of a captain who has to destroy his own ship. This song is featured on Ahoy!, but seeing it live is another experience as the band makes excellent musical storytellers and drew every emotion in from the crowd. The same can be said for the performance of “Familiarity,” which is a culmination of powerful rhythms and vibrant lyrics. The song desperately seeks connection and the Punch Brothers delivered it with open hearts.
Enough can’t be said for the technical capabilities of this band which is never shy of amazing. The night had many occasions of improvisational display and some fun here and there, such as Kowert playing his bass to octaves beyond what I ever thought could be done. The picking and finger work done by these five individuals is enough of a show on its own. So it came as a nice surprise when they set aside their instruments for the harmonizing ode “The Auld Triangle” originally put into song by The Dubliners back in the 1960s. Not many people could pull that off.
The Punch Brothers put on a fantastic show at the Ogden. The show was well balanced bringing virtuosic pieces and familiar progressions together seamlessly. The band brought an endless energy and passion to the stage that carried the night through.
The setlist for the night included (original artist for cover in parentheses): “My Oh My,” “Bow Weevil (Jarrell),” “This Girl,” “Familiarity,” “Rye Whiskey,” “Passepied (Debussy),” “Another New World (Ritter),” “I Blew it Off,” “Flippen,” “Through the Bottom of the Glass (Rausch),” “Movement and Location,” “Julep,” “Kid A (Radiohead),” “The Auld Triangle (The Dubliners),” “Wayside/Back in Time (Welch),” “Magnet.” Encore: “New York City,” “Little Lights.”