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Music Review

Rousing bluegrass artistry from the Punch Brothers

Mandolinist Chris Thile (pictured in 2010) is the leader of the Punch Brothers.
Mandolinist Chris Thile (pictured in 2010) is the leader of the Punch Brothers.(The New York Times/file)

Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers are both fronted by mandolinist Chris Thile (albeit with ample contributions from his respective bandmates), and both bands are built around bluegrass instrumentation without hewing to the orthodoxy of the genre. But where Nickel Creek is bluegrass as pop music, the Punch Brothers are bluegrass as art-rock. Or possibly vice versa. Either way, on Friday the latter group gave the House of Blues a whirlwind demonstration of what a five-piece string band could pull off.

Not that there weren’t glimmers of mountain folk music throughout. “Boll Weevil” and “Rye Whiskey” throbbed with the drone and cut-time giddyup of Appalachian music, and they sped up Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back In Time” into a spirited stomper, with all the blazing virtuosity that the change demanded. But such traditional approaches were in limited supply. Instead, the Punch Brothers were more expansive, whether tossing unexpected detours into seemingly simple songs, recasting more complex material into bluegrass arrangements or refusing to be bound by the norms of folk composition.

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Their uncanny ability to play with dynamics — not just contrasting quiet and loud but effortlessly shifting from one to the other — spoke to their ability to breathe together as a group. To call the Punch Brothers a well-oiled machine would imply that there was a drop of oil to be seen, when in fact they were staggeringly tight and clean.

Their imagination, meanwhile, could be gleaned just from the instrumentals, which weren’t simply variations on a basic stylistic theme but all developed different feels. “Flippen” had the structure of a reel but not the composition of one, while Debussy’s “Passepied” rang delicately like soft bells as the Punch Brothers huddled together in a line and transferred the melody across their instruments. And a wordless screech-and-scratch cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” took its time, unrushed as Noam Pikelny’s banjo ticked like a broken clock.

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If there was a downside to the band’s eager, effortless creativity, it was that its absence was sharply felt in “I Blew It Off,” such a straightforward pop song that, arranged slightly differently, it could have been by the likes of the Script or the Fray. In the Punch Brothers’ hands, it was the least interesting song they played.

Opener Gaby Moreno charmed with just her guitar, singing simple but strong songs — some with a cowboy cast, some bossa nova, some bluesy — in a voice with the same sort of deep, quavery plaintiveness of Brandi Carlile.

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Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.