“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”
So opined Chris Thile after the Americana trio I’m With Her finished a short yet moving set in the first half of an incredible three hours of music last evening at the Kennedy Center. The concert hall’s acoustics were ringing all evening as the sold out crowd not only enjoyed the beautiful harmonies from I’m With Her’s Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, but also the instrumental talents and music-making of mandolinist extraordinaire Thile and the Punch Brothers, along with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers, virtuosi of the banjo and upright bass respectively.
The Kennedy’s Center policy against photography leaves me using old photos from other concerts, but that hardly matters. The music was the focus last evening.
Thile was invited to curate a four-day American Acoustic Music Festival, and Friday evening’s show was clearly the headliner. The Punch Brothers opened the first half of the show with a tight set capped by the raucous Rye Whiskey. I’m With Her followed, with a beautiful set of tunes with interwoven harmonies that belied the fact that this group hasn’t played together for much of this year. Finally Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers closed out the first half of the show by demonstrating the musicality, technique, and compositional skills that made them the trailblazers they are in this genre. (And yes, there were jokes throughout the evening about first playing with people when they were eight.)
The generous 90-minute second half featured collaborations among all the musicians, and that was when the magic was really made. Fleck joined the Punch Brothers to kick off that half with one of Bela’s tunes from the influential 1980s album Drive, featuring the first of numerous delicious twin banjo romps between Fleck and the incredible Noam Pikelny.
Virtually every tune in the second half was a highlight, beginning with Meyer and Fleck joining the Punch Brothers to play Blue Men of the Sahara, their composition from Strength in Numbers: The Telluride Sessions – an album that helped transform acoustic string music in the 1980s. O’Donovan and Jarousz took turns singing striking leads with the Punch Brothers. Fleck and Gabe Witcher played a wonderful banjo/fiddle duet in honor of Dr. Ralph Stanley – the last of the original triumvirate of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs) – who passed away the night before. (That led Pikelny to quip that Stanley’s death led to the crash of the entire world economic order.)
As the night came to a close, Sara Watkins led the entire crew in the first of several encores – John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days. Three tunes – and many more moments of high musicianship and amazing technique later – Chris Thile and his friends left everyone satisfied.
And I’ll leave you with a John Hiatt tune – Crossing Muddy Water – that was played last evening by I’m With Her. Enjoy!
More to come…