Friday, 7 August 2015

Oh (Punch) Brother, Where Art Thou?

I instinctively know if a gig is good or not. I don’t wrestle with the good points and bad points to decide. I normally just know! However, this gig is throwing up more questions than answers!

So many questions it feels like I'm sitting an exam…

RFH Exam Board
You have two hours to answer all the questions.
Please show all your working out.
Turn over your papers once the headline act takes to the stage.
Please put pens down after the encore.

Q1: Philosophy 101: If this gig was a philosophical question what would that question be?

A1: When does virtuoso become mundane?

A great song is not necessarily a collection of sublime solos. It can be a well-crafted simple set of chords married to a deep and poetic lyric played well within the ability of each musician. Songs should be allowed to speak for themselves. In this gig however, it felt as if each and every song was little more than a fusion of five fabulously talented musicians showing off!

Q2: Mathematics: Express the gig as a mathematical conundrum.

Q. 26.5 strings are played by 50 fingers for two hours what is the speed?
A. 150 miles an hour

However, the best solos are not necessarily the fastest. It is harder to control a motorbike at walking pace than at 70 miles an hour (I couldn't say for speeds above the speed limit - honest!) there is more to a great lick than speed. In what is not played, in the pure clean note held for an incredible length of time, in the sweet slow serenade of the solo - it is in these things the listener finds excitement and amazement too.

Q3: Media Studies: If this gig was a film, what film would it be, and why?

A3: Oh (Punch) Brother, Where Art Thou?

Not just because of the pun, but because they are ‘The Men of Constant Solos’!

Q4: Politics: If this gig were an electoral voting system would it be First Past the Post or Proportional Representation? Explain your conclusion.

A:4 Proportional Representation!

Every band member does not need to shine in every song! This is democracy gone too far! The result of giving every musician a crack of the whip each time round is that the songs become formulaic. Giving everyone a solo works in some songs - the final song of the night was a brilliant tour de force and an inspired way to finish. However, the brilliance was dulled by the fact that it mirrored every other song!

Q5: Philosophy 201 “A gig is an essentially existential experience.” Discuss

A5: “Hello Band, let me introduce myself - I’m the audience and I paid good money for these rather comfortable seats…”

At times I felt superfluous to the gig, and it takes more than faux flattery between songs to make a crowd feel part of a performance. By definition, a gig is a chance for musicians to play in front of an audience. There were times tonight when I was convinced that we could have all walked out and the band would have played on, and the first they would have been aware we had abandoned them would have been when there was no applause!

Q6: Sociology: “A gathered crowd at a gig becomes one.” Discuss

A6: False

If I have to sit through at least 4 solos in each song, please, fellow audience members, don’t applaud every solo, especially when it means I miss the start of the next one.

Q7: Musicology: How would you classify The Punch Brothers’ music?

A7:  Eclectic

American bluejazz, modern grass, barber pop, rock ’n’ shop, country roll classical chamber music!

Q8: Performance Studies:  “A gig is to music what an exhibition is to art.” Discuss

A8: I am convinced that the faithful audience would lynch me if they knew what I was thinking. The Punch Brothers can do no wrong in their ears but I feel like I’m standing looking at a painting in an exhibition and listening to the people next to me talk about the wonderful expression in the artists portrayal of skies, when all I can see are cartoon clouds which I’d expect to see on a seven year old’s drawing. It is like staring at a work by Ravilious when all you want to see is a John Martyn!  I can see it is art but I can see no reason for the fanatical dedication of the audience.

I put my pen down and I’m not sure if I’ve passed the exam. I envisage lots of red lines through my stumbling, meandering attempts at answers!

Rachel Sermanni supported tonight and shone. Not through her music, which I felt rather stumbled than flowed in her performance, but through her ease at being on stage and being one with the audience. She walked on, guitar in one hand and mandolin in the other, and said hello down the mic. Then she looked around, obviously having lost something, and asked if we had seen her drop a plectrum! Then, with grace and poise and no hint of embarrassment, she retraced her steps into the wings searching for the lost plectrum, all to great applause and appreciation from the audience!!

In-between her set and The Punch Brothers I was treated to a ride in the Singing Lift in the Festival Hall! As we descended so did the notes of the musical accompaniment and as we ascended so did the music. It is a wonderful musical lift and as I went up and down in it I reflected that perhaps that is why I go to live music - to get that metaphorical musical lift. And in the end, I guess that is what I was missing from the headline act; The Punch Brothers are undoubtedly brilliant musicians, writing finely crafted songs, but they failed to connect with me through their formulaic approach to showcasing their talent live. 

Gig: 16 of 50
Date of Gig: Sat. 1st August 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Rachel Sermanni
The Punch Brothers

Running total of artists seen 38

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