The Punch Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops
O2 ABC, Fri 20 Jan
This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio, and we'll post excerpts here as soon as we can.
Richard Bull reports
Here's where my festival began, escaping from a drenched Sauchiehall Street to find the Punch Brothers in full flow at the front of a packed ABC.
They're led by Chris Thile, the mandolin prodigy who made his first album at the age of 13. And while the band contribute masterly guitar, fiddle, banjo and double bass, it's the mandolin maelstrom of Thile that grabs the attention.
They may lack the gentleness of his former band, Nickel Creek, but their songs glitter and soar, capable of pushing beyond traditional bluegrass into alternative rock (tonight's set included a cover of The Strokes' Reptilia). While purists may scratch their beards, Thile's band is absolutely true to the spirit of Bill Monroe, who essentially invented bluegrass in the 1940s as a showcase for his Blue Grass Boys' instrumental virtuosity.
Next up were another string-driven band of young adventurers into America's musical past. Like many, I suspect, I did a double-take on first encountering this band. I was unaware of any musical movement to revive the black string band tradition which stretches back into the time of slavery.
But here to open my eyes are the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And certainly they do engage with the racial politics of American musical history. But above all they're a wildly entertaining carnival of a band.
The three core members (enhanced by Leyla McCalla on cello) worked their way through a hoard of instruments, swapping freely between banjo and fiddle, which dominate, plus guitar, resonator mandolin, drums, mouth organ, kazoo, jug, quills (a pan flute) and, most incredibly, bones (cow's ribs apparently).
Much of the material is taken from African-American sources, but the most uproarious moment was another surprise. Rhiannon Giddens explained how the Carolinas have a significant history of Scottish immigration and Gaelic language, and she proceeded with a barnstorming, and entirely convincing, performance in Gaelic.
It's going to be fun seeing if anyone else can rise to the challenge of playing and entertaining as completely as these two bands.