This Valentine’s Day at the Mondavi Center there were no red roses, no assorted chocolates and no sappy love songs.
“When this is all over, you’re all gonna go home and eat those little candy hearts with each other,” said Chris Thile, main vocalist and mandolin player of bluegrass band Punch Brothers. “Those things just taste so bad! So bad!”
Thile’s charismatic and witty sarcasm on stage was an added bonus to the performance visitors experienced on Feb. 14 at Jackson Hall. And although the mood didn’t quite match the romance of the Valentine holiday, the melodic synchrony of the five-piece group was enough to make visitors fall head over leather boots in love with the acclaimed musicians.
Punch Brothers, formed in 2007, brought something atypical both in sound and emotion to the Mondavi – the sound, a mix between toe-tappin‘ bluegrass and contemporary classical; the emotion, a purging of heartache, abandonment and self-depreciation.
“Folks, we really commend you for being here with us tonight,” Thile said during the performance. “You’re really thinking outside the box here. Because as you can see, this really isn’t the type of music you listen to on Valentine’s Day.“
Thile was perhaps referring to the 45-minute four movement suite called “The Blind Leaving the Blind” off of the band’s newest album, Punch. Though mostly a polyrhythmic instrumental piece, the melancholy lyrics tell of Thile’s recent divorce followed by his painful recovery.
Amidst overlapping and Bach-like string movements, lyrics such as “Lord, I don’t know why / You give me so much life / All to live resigned to dying” are a testament to Thile’s evident heartache.
The movement took approximately four years to write, and Thile commissioned four band mates: Gabe Witcher on the fiddle, Noam Pikelny on the banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar and Paul Kowert on the bass. The five had collaborated on Thile’s solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground.
“Four years ago, Chris [Thile] called us and told us about this suite for a bunch of strings he wanted to compose with us,‘” Pikelny said during the performance. “Since then I’ve installed caller I.D. on my phone.“
Before 2006‘s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground and last year’s Punch, Thile produced a one-man-band album, Deceiver, playing a grand total of 39 different musical instruments. However, most know him from his musicianship in the progressive acoustic band Nickel Creek, which he started when he was only 11. The band won several Grammies and received high acclaim from musicians and media. Thile is now 30 years old.
Punch Brothers have since been touring everywhere from Livermore to New York City, choosing locations mostly based off the sound quality of the venues. Thile and Pikelny remarked on the acoustics of the Mondavi Center, saying it was one of the best venues they had ever played in.
The band played for approximately an hour and half, with a three-song encore. One of the songs was an improvised piece with Thile telling the audience to buy merchandise after the show, so that they could buy the Mondavi Opus One brand wine. The center was full of laughter and applause.
And although the night had its fair share of emotional turmoil despondency told through the lyrics and rhythms of the songs played, Thile couldn’t help but confess at the end of the night that he had caught the Valentine’s Day bug.
“Folks, we’re at that phase in our relationship,” Thile said. “It’s time to say it – we love you. We really do.“
So with the healing applause from a grateful crowd, the band left the stage, only to meet in front of the Mondavi for autographs and pictures later. By the end, Thile and his band mates no longer seemed heartbroken and dejected – rather, they appeared quite smitten and love-struck.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.