The Punch Brothers and Gabriel Kahane at Mass MoCA
Somehow, neither my partner nor I had ever been to Mass MoCA, so we decided to rectify that with a spring break trip that would combine a museum visit with a concert. Walking around Mass MoCA pre-concert, it was clear that this is a place where people are pushing the boundaries of what art is, and have been for a while. The first sight upon entering the galleries is Taryn Simon’s exhibit “A Cold Hole,” where the gallery floor is covered in a thick sheet of ice, and the only feature is a square hole in the center filled with water. While museumgoers watch through a glass wall, visitors and performers alike are allowed to jump into the freezing water at intervals throughout the day to explore various aspects of cold-water plunges and the extreme biological state this action inflicts on the body. This deeply ingrained principle of challenging the traditional parameters of art transfers itself to music with Gunnar Schonbeck’s interactive rooms titled “No Experience Required,” which are constructed on two principles: anyone can be a musician, and anything can be a musical instrument.
The evening opened with a 45-minute set written and performed by Gabriel Kahane, ranging from sung tweets about how “cats...are God’s perfect killing machines” to selections from his 2018 album Book of Travelers, the result of a cross-country trip he embarked on the day after the 2016 presidential election. Kahane alternated between guitar and piano, singing clever and poignant lyrics atop harmonies informed by both classical training and an irreverence for the same.
The Punch Brothers, dressed in ties and vests or blazers, were the headliner of the evening, commanding the stage for the next two-plus hours. A quintet composed of mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher; the band’s style has been described by New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden as “what might be called American country-classical chamber music.” Punch Brothers’ most recent album –– All Ashore (2018) –– won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album at the most recent Grammy Awards ceremony on February 10th, 2019.
The concert took place after-hours in a long room with several hundred seats, all of which were sold out. The audience was older than I had anticipated –– it makes sense that not too many children would be brought to an 8pm show, but in our early twenties, my partner and I were certainly amongst the youngest members by a bit. The audience sang along enthusiastically when asked, and were an engaged and supportive crew.
Throughout the concert, the changing colors of light displays shone onto the black curtain that served as a backdrop for the stage. The visual constant amongst the changing colors of the backdrop were the projected shadows of nautical imagery –– masts, rigging, etc. –– in a clear nod to the marine title of their latest album and some of their seafaring lyrics. The colored lights, which sometimes changed as often as every few measures, but sometimes stayed the same for multiple songs, may have been a reference to the featured light exhibits in Mass MoCA –– “Into the Light” by James Turrell. In any case, these installations of light in various colors, shapes, and scale were certainly mentioned by the performers in the banter between songs, and it would have been unsurprising if the lighting designer for the concert had planned aesthetic parallels to the Turrell exhibit.
The Punch Brothers, dressed in ties and vests or blazers, were the headliner of the evening, commanding the stage for the next two-plus hours. A quintet composed of mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher the band’s style has been given a drink recipe. Most of the time only three members of the Punch brothers sang; Thile, Eldridge, and Pikelny. Something slightly metallic in lead singer Chris Thile’s high tenor voice fits well with the twang of mandolin, guitar, and banjo strings. The others blended their voices with him from time to time to form a barbershop trio of sorts. Gabe Witcher’s soaring violin lines complemented the rhythmic strumming sections of the band, expanding both the melodic and emotional range of the music.
Musical selections of the evening ranged from the more expected lively bluegrass tunes and lonesome folk ballads to a beautiful arrangement of “Passepied” from Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. The concert ended, or first appeared to, with the entire crowd on its feet. As an encore, they played an upbeat tune with a somber message, “Rye Whiskey,” and two other songs, the last of which were completely acoustic, ending with “Familiarity.” The crowd went silent as we all strained to hear what words Thile was singing; although the vocals were nearly impossible to hear, the overall effect and simplicity of the acoustic finish was beautiful. All in all, the concert came in as a close second of my weekend –– bested only by the presence of the gregarious and mischievous tabby at our Airbnb –– which is high praise indeed.