Punch Brothers : Hell on Church Street Review
Punch Brothers is mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher. The New York City-based quintet releases their latest album, Hell on Church Street. The album is the Punch Brothers’ re-imagining of, and homage to, the late bluegrass great Tony Rice’s landmark solo album Church Street Blues. The record features a collection of songs by Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Monroe, and others. The band recorded the songs at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio in November 2020. Hell on Church Street was intended as both its own work of art and a gift to Rice, who died that Christmas. Punch Brothers said of Tony Rice and Church Street Blues: “No record (or musician) has had a greater impact on us, and we felt compelled to cover it in its entirety, with the objective of interacting with it in the same spirit of respect-fueled adventure that Tony brought to each of its pre-existing songs.”
“Church Street Blues” opens the album with an energetic and layered version of Rice’s title track. The feel is beautifully created with various instruments ornamenting the pulse of the music. From banjo and mandolin fast picking with supportive guitar strums to walking bass lines and emotional violin swells, “Church Street Blues” shows the band’s inventive colors of textures, rhythms, and destiny.
“Cattle in the Cane” is a modern bluegrass, mandolin-centric driving rendition of the melody that finds the violin and bass laying down a bowed countermelody to form a modern creative classical meets contemporary bluegrass sound. Thile’s throaty mandolin paints impressive, improvised lines within the space during his solo. The expressive feel of the ensemble pushes each soloists to dig deep into their vocabulary of expression. As a result, each of the solos on this arrangement is outstanding, with a tasteful sense of phrasing that characterizes bluegrass with modern colors and rhythms.
Hell on Church Street is no less extraordinary than Church Street Blues. Both albums offer unstoppable bluegrass acrobatics combined with other styles of their time. The Punch Brothers create an album with music that surrounds itself with tradition while underpinning each performer’s voice and instrument into their own actions and musical voices.
Hell on Church Street
January 14, 2022