Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers perform "Cuckoo's Nest" at Carnegie Hall
Wednesday night’s Carnegie Hall first-ever concert pairing of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers was billed as featuring the two main branches of mandolinist/composer Chris Thile’s musical family tree, as Thile, who holds the Hall’s 2019-2019 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair, is a centerpiece of both groups.
Both bands have continued the progressive bluegrass path pioneered by the likes of New Grass Revival, Mark O’Connor and Alison Krauss & Union Station, extending it further into the realm of art music. Consisting of Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother Sean Watkins on guitar, Nickel Creek formed in 1989 as “a chaste and wholesome children’s trio,” joked Thile, and indeed, then-eldest Sean was only 12 at the time. They’ve long since matured into one of pop’s top trios (upright bassist Mike Elizondo accompanied them at Carnegie), each bringing their own distinct personality and talent to the whole and in equal measure.
Sara Watkins, who opened the set with “Destination” from the group’s 2014 album A Dotted Line, has become a unique vocalist/instrumentalist/composer in her own right, as consistently demonstrated on her solo albums and sporadic Nickel Creek reunion discs. Her onstage interplay with Thile remains a striking concert visual in juxtaposing her short frame against his lanky athleticism, which she’ll sometimes match by kicking one foot backwards to knee height while fiddling as Thile, directly opposite, does same mandolining.
And while it would be easy to downgrade stolid Sean Watkins next to the two powerhouses, it would be wrong: Besides his fine guitar play, his “21st of May”(also from A Dotted Line) was a standout, as was his whimsical story behind it—having written it in the day prior to the now likely-forgotten May 21, 2011 Rapture/Judgement Day hysteria.
Another set centerpiece was the nifty pairing of the “Rest of My Life” hangover song with the “Scotch and Chocolate” instrumental. They also played their jazzy Dotted Line cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” before bringing out the Punch Brothers to further enliven “Cuckoo’s Nest,” a traditional bluegrass instrumental off their self-titled 2000 album, for which all crowded around a single microphone, as Punch Brothers had done during their perfect Carnegie Hall opening set.
For sure, Thile was at the center of the Punch Brothers’ huddle, and banjo player Noam Pikelny even took a moment to congratulate him on his Composer’s Chair Carnegie residency as “quite the local gig.” But the other Brothers (also including guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Gabe Witcher) offered way more than mere Chris Thile sidemen.
The finely tuned set started with “My Oh My” from the group’s 2015 album The Phosphorescent Blues and followed suit with multifaceted material full of precision playing, meticulous orchestrations, controlled dynamics, and lovely vocalizing, mainly from Thile and Eldridge—both gliding easily into high reaches and often staying there. When the others joined in, the full group vocally resembled Beach Boys or Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies, while musically evoking Copland, Debussey (they performed his “Passepied,” also from The Phosphorescent Blues), and of course, bluegrass—via the traditional “Boll Weevil” (again from that album, and a song cited by Thile as “a sign of our times” in being “perfectly apocalyptic.”
But the Punch Brothers also played songs from latest album All Ashore, including “Just Look At This Mess,” which describes a certain lying, cheating “sandlot antagonist-cum-king.” It was performed, proclaimed Pikelny, even after fear it would be prevented by a claim of executive privilege.