Punch Brothers had the audacity to hit an audience of about 1,200 with a belt of Claude Debussy at Crossroads KC on Sunday. The shot landed. Aside from the occasional slamming of the doors of portable toilets at the outdoor venue, the quintet’s reverent reading of the classical composer’s “Passepied” was greeted with rapt silence.
The unlikely episode reflects the respect commanded by theband led by Chris Thile. The mandolinist is to bluegrass what Wynton Marsalis is to jazz and what Yo-Yo Ma is to classical music: the public face of a musical genre.
Thile, the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows genius grant in 2012, succeeded Garrison Keillor as the host of the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” last year.
Thile’s band mates — guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny and fiddler Gabe Witcher — are also elite musicians. Without any special effects or props other than the ties worn by each man, the quintet huddled around a single microphone to play almost two hours of thrilling progressive bluegrass, challenging art songs and the dollop of Debussy.
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The format allowed Punch Brothers to prove that the studio trickery producer T Bone Burnett applied to “The Phosphorescent Blues,” the group’s fourth and most recent album, was unnecessary. The band’s jaw-dropping musicianship allowed it to re-create each startling sound with seeming ease.
The unadorned format accentuated the subtle components of Punch Brothers’ sound, such as the hummed vocal harmonies on “Dark Days,” a song that appeared on the soundtrack to the 2012 film “Hunger Games,” and the stellar interplay between Eldridge and Pikelny on “Familiarity.” The pop elements of Punch Brothers’ most accessible selections like the enchanting “My Oh My” and the dreamy “Julep” were downplayed in favor of far-flung instrumental forays.
“Rye Whiskey,” a song about the virtues and drawbacks of alcohol in which the audience was encouraged to shout the refrain “oh boy,” and the lusty “Magnet,” a composition Thile jokingly insisted was “about physics,” were among only a handful of rousing selections.
Much of the evening was devoted to ambitious art songs like “New York City” and “Familiarity,” material that is more closely aligned with German composer Bertolt Brecht than bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.
As Thile shimmied his slender frame while delivering the romantic plea “This Girl,” his head oscillated like a bobblehead doll that was calibrated to strike an ideal balance between high and low art.