It’s hard to be an evening with intricate acoustic music performed by excellent artists in the Bijou Theatre. Really, where would you rather hear music. The entire show could have almost as well been performed without amplification. The amplification as it was consisted of a single microphone for opener Anais Mitchell, along with a pickup for her guitar, and just a single vocal/instrument microphone for the band.
Anais Mitchell performed her passionate self-penned songs solo and engaged the audience with her warmth and charisma from the beginning. A singer songwriter from Vermont, her father is a professor and novelist and the literary pedigree shows in the depth of her lyrics. She started writing songs at seventeen-years-old and has been associated with Ani DiFranco (she recorded with Ani and recorded on Ani’s label) and Bon Iver, with whom she shared a tour. Her albums have been excellently reviewed. Her latest, “xoa,” is a career collection, of sorts, featuring re-recordings of some of her earlier work along with some new songs.
The Punch Brothers – Chris Thile (also of Nickel Creek, mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass) – have been described by New York Times writer Stephen Holden as “American country-classical chamber music.” I’ll not be able to describe it any better. At times classical, at times folk, the music had a consistent underpinning of bluegrass. It really does seem at once unique, but also related to Chris’ other band.
You might notice the lack of close-up photographs. The band restricted photographers from “the pit,” which means simply the area directly in front of the stage, so these photographs were all taken with a 70X200 lens from the back half of the auditorium on the sides or from the back and balcony. I would have loved to have gotten some closer shots, but based on conversations I had that night, I’m lucky to have gotten to take photographs at all.
The formation stayed the same for the entire night with Noam joking that the single mic should not concern anyone who expected the Punch Brothers’ typically energetic performance. In fact, he suggested we watch closely as the band engaged in a complex set change before our very eyes. With that, the banjo player crossed to other side of the group and exchanged places with the fiddle player.
I’d been at the Tour de Lights earlier taking photographs and I’d wished they could see that excellent highlight of our city. It turns out they had. Noam recounted how, walking from their hotel to the show, the band was stopped by a massive onslaught of lighted bicycles. He said they’d had to implore a policeman that they had “to get across to go to work.” He said they wondered if it might not be a conspiracy to stop the show, perhaps foisted upon them by a rival band – like U2.
The night was filled with musical highlights too numerous to describe and beyond my capabilities to do so, but it was a very, very good show with the musically complex, yet instrumentally simple, music that works best in that venue. The music ranged from pretty straight-forward bluegrass to classical pieces composed for the piano and performed on the mandolin. A simple, static arrangement never seemed dull.
I’m posting a video of “Rye Whiskey” from the 2010 album “Antifogmatic.” The popular song was a highlight with the audience at the first night of the two-night Bijou stand. Hope you enjoy. I’ll try to post the complete collection of photographs to the Inside of Knoxville Facebook Page.