When you scan your ticket at the gate for admittance to the Chautauqua Amphitheater you don’t immediately enter a concert venue. You first gain admittance to the Chautauqua Institution, a self-contained gated community unlike any other. There is a surreal quality to the surroundings, only amplified on this cool, rain-drenched August evening. A group was gathered in the Chabad House to welcome the Sabbath a few steps from Palestine Street and just around the corner from the Ecumenical Society. Quiet, tree-lined and nearly carless streets led down to a town square where a group of kids were taking advantage of the extended summer evening with a pre-dusk soccer game. It felt like we were extras on a movie set, wandering through a story beyond our immediate grasp. Just past the square, the faint sounds of acoustic guitar emerged from a sunken wooden amphitheater. It was newly rebuilt and restored this past year, a unique space with stunning sound and excellent sight lines. People were gathered inside for the evening’s entertainment, being provided by American Acoustic. The location and entertainment overlapped in some sort of mystical is-this-real-life place, a dense mash of thick color in the middle of a complex Venn diagram.
American Acoustic is a dream-come-true tour for bluegrass and Americana fans. The all-male super-group-in-reverse Punch Brothers (featuring Chris Thile on mandolin, Paul Kowert on bass, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Chris Eldridge on guitar), joined forces with the all-female super group I’m With Her (featuring Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan) and rogue guitar phenom Julian Lage for an all-out string feast.
Like a scene from The Wizard of Oz, two large wooden doors automatically opened to the side of the stage, and musicians would emerge from the darkness beyond. They ebbed and flowed from the lineup throughout the evening, displaying multitudes of unique combinations, providing moments upon moments of sheer brilliance.
Each was a verse in the poetic epic that comprised the entire show: In a duo with Chris Eldridge on “Things in Life,” off their recent release, Julian Lage snuck masterfully melodic picking in, around and under Eldridge’s vocals / Kowert accompanied the otherwise a capella I’m With Her for their set-closing take on Adele’s “Send My Love,” each of their beautiful voices weaved around each other in a magnificent groove / A perfectly placed dog bark rang out during the Punch Brothers’ performance of Claude Debussy’s “Passepied,” further knotting the connection between the place and performance, much to the delight of the crowd and band alike / In a cover of Josh Ritter’s sea-faring tale “Another New World” the closing improvisation section appropriately contained monster waves of sound, swelling with energy / Jarosz joined the band for an oozing and sparse rendition of Radiohead’s “The Tourist” / The entire ensemble combined for a hair-on-end words-can’t-describe it cover of the Beatles “Julia” / A show closing take on the traditional “Father Adieu” was a true vocal workout, each verse being sung by a different combination of voices, with the last round between the collective male and female voices, simply stunning.
Those extra special moments were wrapped tightly amongst more folk-induced warmth and heat. Julian Lage and Noam Pikelny showcased their individual eye-popping talents with interspersed solo pieces. I’m With Her beefed up their minimal-but-growing catalog of originals like “Overland” and “Little Lies” with covers of Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia” and John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters.” The Punch Brothers took over after a short break, with a set spanning their catalog, hitting on “New York City,” “Julep,” “Familiarity” and the clever pairing of “Hops of Guldenberg” with “Rye Whiskey.” During the closing portion with everyone on stage, Thile presented a new song, ripped from the headlines, titled “Comey’s Waltz,” with lyrics like, “Now someone else has to come and stick it to ya, hallelujah” and “Sir, I’m already gone.”
With a fun romp through Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” featuring everyone, as their encore, they sent the crowd back on their way. Exiting the gates of the community, like emerging from the corn fields in the “Field of Dreams,” we were mortal again. The real world beckoned, but we’ll always have that magical night with American Acoustic in Chautauqua.