You know a gig in Shetland is especially exceptional when, come the end of the night, the bodies in the audience rise up, snake-charmed by the musicians in front of them, for a standing ovation, writes Chris Cope.
They don’t happen all too often here; maybe it’s reservedness, or maybe we’re just a bit hard to please.
Either way, you knew within fifteen minutes of Punch Brothers’ set at Mareel on Monday night that those bums were going to launch right off the seats come closing time.
The American contemporary folksters’ musicianship, feel-good melody-making, humour and charisma was a captivating cocktail of charming components that made for one of the best gigs seen in the isles in recent memory.
It was up to Shetland based songsmith Kris Drever to open things up and he did so with impressively adroit acoustic guitar chops that blended succinctly with his lilting, reassuring Orcadian voice.
Beads and Feathers was a soothing song choice for starters, while the free-reign set-up saw Drever occasionally tap into an acoustic-virtuoso sensibility not always found in his main gig fronting acclaimed folk trio Lau.
Near the end of his short set, the glossy-haired musician imparted some thoughts of wisdom about the headline act. “Shetland gets it good,” he said, referring to the notable pull the isles have with visiting bands. “But even by your standards, this is pretty special”.
It seems Drever’s prophecy of sorts was well and truly fulfilled. Punch Brothers were a considerable coup for Shetland; an outward-looking booking of an esteemed group in their prime that reaffirmed the necessity of independent promoters such as the night’s hosts Ragged Wood.
The quintet sauntered on stage to a symphony of palm-eroding applause; “We’re so excited to be here,” jubilantly exclaimed singer and mandolinist Chris Thile, who seemed about to spontaneously combust. “At last!” he shouted, exuding an aura of someone so natural on stage that you wouldn’t be surprised if he was born on one.
Tracks like My Oh My summed up what this band are all about; there was the kinetic folky bluegrass hues, superbly coined through mandolin, banjo, fiddler, acoustic guitar and double bass work; but there was also the radio-friendly hooks and contagious choruses.
What makes Punch Brothers quite so special is their penchant for gallantly strolling off the beaten path, unashamedly going left-field and exploring the boundaries of their genre – whatever that may be. For every straight-up song there were spaegie-threatening solo battles, or meandering song structures and kooky chord progressions – a quality that enticed jazz and rock fans to Mareel as well as folk festival regulars.
Not only were the crowd lapping it up, but it seems the band, who were perched around just one valiant microphone, were too – “let’s just do this all night,” Grammy-winning Thile quipped. You could tell the audience were already hanging off his every word, while his beguiling stage presence saw the besuited American flopping around like a puppet on strings as intertwined deeper with his mandolin sidekick.
This Girl brought things back to focus with twee pop-folk inspiration, while Familiarity – the ten-minute opening cut from Punch Brothers’ latest album The Phosphorescent Blues – was a set highlight, pivoting on Thile’s obscene knack for playing light-speed mandolin whilst still managing to usher out impeccable vocals. “I love you/I mean it,” sang the besuited musician during the track, and you got the feeling that most of the audience uttered it right back at him in their heads.
The gig was one of those rare, truly faultless nights; there were the barber shop-esque harmonies, up-down dynamism and well thought-out spots of humour that got the sold-out crowd chuckling from the belly upwards. They had the look too, suited and booted, while meek bassist Paul Kowert looked akin to a geeky extra from the high school dance scene in Back To The Future.
A two-song encore was kicked off by the foot-tapping New York City, and there it was; the standing ovation. The second of the night, actually. “This has been wonderful,” Thile said with a look of genuine wonder swirling in his doting eyes. “Let’s do this again please.”
Now that is an offer you can’t refuse.
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