Punch Brothers – Hell On Church Street: Album Review

Largely exquisite tribute/cover to Tony Rice’s Church Street Blues, his 1983 bluegrass masterclass from Punch Brothers.

Released: 14th January 2022

Label: Nonesuch

Formats: Vinyl/CD/DL

Is bluegrass music for the heart or the head? Or, more to the point, for listening or dancing to? Instinctively I am drawn to feeling the latter, even if I never do, but, were a view to the contrary required, the Punch Brothers take it, and effortlessly, as far to a piece of cerebral chamber music as this genre can carry. This is in no small part to the technical excellence of the players, each recognised at the forefront of their instruments’ prowess.

For this quintet to choose to celebrate the work of the late Tony Rice, shows just how highly he rates within their collective inspiration. As, of course, he should, having been such a giant of American guitar play, both in his own right and alongside other luminaries from David Grisman and Jerry Garcia to Bela Fleck, Chris Hillman, Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas, with a ridiculously fluid touch across the strings of his acoustic guitar. Church Street Blues, upon which this is based, was actually near a solo recording. With only Rice, his voice and his guitar, save his brother Wyatt adding rhythm guitar to four of the tracks, all the tracks were covers, drawn from both traditional and contemporary sources; songs by Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and even Ralph McTell snuggle alongside cowboy ballads.

The Punch Brothers, should you wonder, all unrelated to Mrs Punch, have been casting their spell for nigh on fifteen years, becoming an intermittent fixture since mandolin wizard Chris Thile, ex- Nickel Creek, drew them together for his 2006 solo piece, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Between their myriad other projects apart, the five players have come together for five further records and two EPs, each recognised as pinnacles of the new bluegrass “newgrass” movement, absorbing elements of jazz and classical into the Appalachian template.

Probably the trigger for this re-imagining of Rice’s work into a full five-piece band came from guitarist, Chris Eldridge, whose father was a musical contemporary of Rice, Rice becoming a family friend. So, when the pandemic hit, stranding and unhinging the players in their different territories, it was re-connecting, over Zoom, with these old and familiar songs, a connection to simpler times in a simpler world, that gave a focus to the spark of inspiration. And this, clearly, is no mere facsimile, the aim being for the far wider reworking and revision it receives, Rice’s technicolor transformed, needed or not, into surround sound and 3D.

The songs and tunes vary between the frantic breakneck of their classic ensemble intricacies to slower reflective pieces, where slower is more and quieter is more still. Opener, Church Street Blues, a Norman Blake song, manages to be both, simultaneously. The ‘legs’ of Thile’s mandolin and the banjo of Noam Pikelny paddling full pelt, while Gabe Witcher’s fiddle glides in and out over Thile’s measured vocals, all underpinned by the reassuring bass of Paul Kowert. All in all, it carries much the vibe as the original, where the guitar does all the equivalent heavy lifting about Rice’s never rushed singing, and is a delightful start. This then ushers in the traditional instrumental Cattle In The Cane, a virtuoso showpiece on the original. Here the band elects to play it all together, the first minute comprising Thile, Pikelny and Eldridge gradually linking alongside each other, Witcher’s fiddle sending out shards of discord, bowed bass providing the same, ahead of then jumping the gears and hurtling into joyous collective runaway train mode, each instrument taking a turn.

Streets Of London is a tricky song for Brits to hear covered, so ubiquitous is it that it can be overlooked quite what a good song it is; witness Rice’s 1983 version. However, possibly mindful of the ennui surrounding it, the Brothers elect to deconstruct it, taking it perhaps a step too far and it becomes a bit of a meandering muddle. So, moving swiftly on, and I mean swiftly, they canter into an agreeable rollick through the early Dylan country blues, One More Night. Accelerating it into unrecognisable and with pleasing harmony vocals, it is most agreeable, ten seconds shy of two minutes. Now, whilst Dylan may be a God to our times and ears, this part of the record warrants giants of the idiom Rice himself bestrode, Bill Monroe the doyen of classic bluegrass bands and Jimmie Rodgers, an icon of country music when even Monroe was a boy. The Gold Rush is, like Streets, perhaps revised a step too far, being more of a dawdle, and a slow one at that, never quite getting started, but Any Old Time hits the Rodgers spot perfectly, in a upbeat jug band stomp that adds new verve to the veritable chestnut it is.

Orphan Annie is another timeless song by Norman Blake, originally sounding steeped in sepia, here presented as a showcase for bassist Kowert, who performs most of the initial heavy lifting, embedding the wistful vocals of Thile, banjo slowly loping in aside some strummed fiddle. A then wondrously languid fiddle solo makes this a highlight. A medley of the traditional House Carpenter and some more Monroe follows, the former may be more familiar as the Demon Lover, which starts all mournful ballad, and which then goes briefly and bonkersly awry, ahead of becoming a banjo breakdown. It works a treat, benefitting from the addended drift into the second tune, Rice having addressed them separately. This is as perfect an example of the ensemble playing as anything here, even as the bonkers bit get a brief return.

Last Thing On My mind is indeed that one – the Tom Paxton standard. Once more a decision made is to detach from the respectful delivery given by Rice, by slowing it to a funereal pace, having the unfortunate effect of making the vocal sound needy and wan, even if the backing strives for being quirky. Strives. Pride Of Man starts as if to do the same, thankfully speeding up to become another opportunity for the five to show off their chops. This leaves the project needing something a bit more whelming to avoid a slight feel of the more mentioned before becoming less. I mean, the record is good, but, hmmm, maybe just not as good as a model upon which it was built. Thankfully, Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is such a song, arguably strong enough to sustain anything thrown at it. But this is a good version, sung with, unsurprisingly by now, a more plaintive lilt to it, but one that works here, and one that actually surpasses Rice’s straighter delivery, saving the overall integrity of the project at that last gasp.

In many places, particularly in the instrumentals, this is nothing less than an inspirational album, the calibre of the musicianship astonishing. But that too was the case in the original, and it is where the Punch Brothers try to update the songs, or a few of them, that it loses some little ground. Indeed, had I been unaware of Rice’s earlier work, perhaps I could hear the songs with a less critical ear, even, it’s true, the songs otherwise already well-trodden. Thus, as a stand alone this is a belter. As a cover? File under gilding a lily, I guess. But the flower remains beautiful.

Here’s Cattle In The Cane, performed live in the studio:

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