Live on the LES with the Punch Brothers

On five wily, omnivorous bluegrass titans

"We were reminded of this tune in Burger King," announces Noam Pikelny, a/k/a Pickles, a/k/a the banjo player. And then the Punch Brothers regale the Lower East Side with an exquisite bluegrass cover of the Cardigans' "Lovefool." It is, on the one hand, a joke—rakish frontman Chris Thile delicately strumming his mandolin and moaning, "I kahn't care 'bout anything but you," exquisitely overselling the falsetto and accent both. But it's also disarming, delicate, and improbably beautiful, a deliriously cheesy Swede-pop classic reimagined by five jocular gentlemen wielding upright bass, acoustic guitar, violin, and the aforementioned banjo and mandolin, respectively, singing sweet, close, angelic harmonies like particularly hammy and hirsute birds.

This is not to suggest that P-Bingo Night, the young band's (roughly) monthly fete at the tiny, excellently named LES haunt the Living Room, is solely a comedy show of wanton genre mishmashes played for laffs. Yes, by request, Pickles will later attempt to lead a freestyle version of Blackstreet's "No Diggity," a song he has never heard, as evidenced by the audience-provided lyric sheet he clutches as he sheepishly barks such bandmate orders as "Play more notes than you're playing now," "Tune up for a second," "A little more tasteful," or "Like the Jordanaires circa 1972." All of that is a joke also. But most of Thursday night's affair, the seventh official P-Bingo Night, is given over to stunning, dexterous pop Americana, as likely to shade into the classical elegance of chamber music or the dense, fleet-fingered pomp of vintage prog as it is to evoke the bluegrass, gospel, and klezmer upon which the Punch Brothers are built, and upon which Pickles was solely raised, which explains why he's never encountered "No Diggity" before.

Feel free to request songs they don't know.
Santiago Felipe
Feel free to request songs they don't know.

Someone mentions that the band will play Carnegie Hall in October, which, given the goofy context here, sounds like a joke, too, until they blast through a labyrinthine, blurred-fingers jam ("boisterously chaotic," as Thile diagnoses it) or a fragile, heartstopping ballad punctuated by a bombastic, arena-worthy violin solo. Sharing two vintage vocal mics between them and confidently, casually roaming the stage—a warmly intimate and physical scrum, huddling together and breaking apart as song difficulty requires—the Brothers are both winging it like open-mic rats and conjuring the telepathic mastery of orchestra pros, cheerfully integrating special guests along the way: Fellow banjo maestro Tony Trischka briefly joins the mob this time out.

"Band calisthenics," is how Thile describes all of this the following afternoon, on the phone from his recently adopted Brooklyn homebase, thrilling to the Living Room's titular intimacy ("I get very uneasy when I can't see a crowd") and lamenting that his falsetto on "Lovefool," damaged by a recent marathon recording session, was not at its sharpest. Nattily dressed and mugging onstage like a Jude Law drained of all potential for cruelty, Thile is a veteran of Nickel Creek, the nearly-20-year-old, California-born trio that itself flirted equally with pop gloss and rural grit. First convened in 2006, the Brothers rose to prominence last year with Punch, their official debut, a devilishly complex record dominated by "The Blind Leaving the Blind," a four-part, 40-minute suite (debuted at Carnegie Hall!) centering emotionally on Thile's recent divorce, as immediate and visceral as fresh heartbreak, as dense and elaborate as the legalese that documents it.

Tonight, the band fixates on potential bangers for the not-yet-begun follow-up, what looks to be a somewhat cheerier and more song-based affair, from the wry drinking song "Rye Whiskey" ("Rye thoughts aren't good thoughts . . . Rye love isn't good love"), to the aforementioned heartstopping ballad "Get Thee Behind Me," to the eerie, atmospheric "Welcome Home," carved in two by a stormy, banjo-led bridge overlaid with bowed bass, arty mandolin shredding, and decidedly non-jokey falsetto. There is a bizarre but very distinct Radiohead overtone to it. And lo, shortly after crowd demand for "Pickle Time" triggers the "No Diggity" experiment (devout fans apparently just show up with lyric-sheet printouts for the poor guy to wrestle with—"We Are the World," "Short People," and "The Humpty Dance" are among the evening's rejected requests), the show climaxes with a staggering cover of Radiohead's "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box," the first track off Amnesiac ("I'm a reasonable man/Get off my case"), with all the original's moody robotic clatter here summoned by palm-muted mandolin strings and scraped picks.

Not too long ago, Radiohead covers were absolutely legion, the easiest possible way for ambitious artists of any genre to flaunt their range, their depth, their refined and contemporary taste. It can and very often did come off as dilettante-ish and insincere; this particular cover, one of several Thile has orchestrated over the years, does not. "I think they're the best band in the world, and I'm amazed at their ability to push and pull at convention and be relevant for a huge number of people," he raves. "They're not throwing fastballs right down the middle of the plate. Those are some nasty cutters and things. And people are going for it. It helps me fight my natural cynicism as regards to pop culture, which I get very depressed about at times—a gigantic portion of this country feels like Fall Out Boy is an acceptable thing to listen to."

Thile seems like an omnivorous and open-minded enough dude that he'll even come around to Fall Out Boy's charms eventually—perhaps "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" will grace the setlist next time. Anything is not just possible here, but probable. After all the clowning and genre-hopping, tonight's show ends with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' "Farewell Blues," a slightly less contemporary tune, harkening to a more banjo-centric era. "Back when this was pop music," as Pickles explains it. "The 'Lovefool' of its time." They nail that one, too.

The Punch Brothers play the Living Room June 11

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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