We haven’t heard from the progressive bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers since 2018’s placid All Ashore. Frontman and mandolinist Chris Thile has remained his typically busy self in the interim, however. He wrapped up his public radio show Live From Here in 2020 May after the COVID-19 pandemic made recording episodes in front of a live audience untenable. He also released a second star-studded Goat Rodeo album in 2020 and put out a solo record in 2021 June. When Punch Brothers finally reconvened after the forced separation of the pandemic, they decided to do a covers album. More specifically, Hell on Church Street is a cover of a covers album.
Guitarist Tony Rice’s 1983 record, Church Street Blues, featured a mixture of bluegrass and folk covers, primarily played solo by Rice on guitar and vocals. Rice’s brother, Wyatt, sat in on rhythm guitar on a handful of the tracks, but those are the only instruments on the entire album. Even with this limitation, Rice managed an impressive array of tones and moods on the record. Listening to it almost 40 years later, the mixture of technical skill and emotional performances really stands out. It’s easy to see why this record would be an appealing choice for Punch Brothers to tackle, as they’ve been using that exact combination for their entire career.
Hell on Church Street follows essentially the same tracklisting as Church Street Blues. The only significant change is that Punch Brothers merge “House Carpenter” and “Jerusalem Ridge” into a single epic seven-minute song, leaving their version with 11 tracks. As they often do, the band kick off the album with one of their most complex, technical pieces. Rice’s version of “Church Street Blues” is a pleasant, upbeat folk song. Punch Brothers don’t mess with the song’s melody, and Thile sings the lyrics in a straightforward, soulful fashion.
The rest of the song, though, is a radical rearrangement. Punch Brothers change the track’s time signature from the standard 4/4 to the intentionally off-kilter 5/4. Mandolin, banjo, and guitar play swift rhythmic patterns while double bassist Paul Kowert switches back and forth from plucking to bowing. Gabe Witcher plays a lot of long, extended notes on his fiddle, which helps to balance out the cascade of notes coming from the other players. They eventually make a nod to the Rice version, shifting to play it his way in the 15-second outro, which has the effect of making an unsettling but intriguing song feel like it was pleasant and upbeat.
Next up, the traditional instrumental “Cattle in the Cane” splits the difference between bluegrass and Irish folk music. Thile plays the melody on the mandolin initially, with notable assistance from guitarist Chris Eldridge. Underneath, though, Witcher plays extended tones on his fiddle that often don’t line up with the key of the song, once again undermining the pleasant folk vibe of the track. Just before the one-minute mark, though, Witcher takes over the main melody, and the song goes into full catchy mode. Even once he relinquishes the lead to banjoist Noam Pikelny, the band keeps it light and breezy. Every member, including Kowert, gets a turn at the melody with ample room to solo as well.
The record’s other instrumental, Bill Monroe‘s “Gold Rush”, builds slowly, with waves of notes coming for a few seconds at a time but never locking into a groove. Witcher plays the main melody in brief snatches over and between these waves. The track’s lack of center for listeners to focus on makes it feel more like an interlude than a proper song. It should also be noted that this arrangement is light years away from the traditional bluegrass track on Rice’s record.
In a couple of instances, Punch Brothers go for what amounts to a straight cover of the Rice version, with allowances made for a five-piece band arrangement over Rice’s solo/duo work. Bob Dylan‘s “One More Night” is given an upbeat bluegrass treatment, with full two-part harmony throughout. The Jimmie Rodgers song “Any Old Time” is presented as a folksy string band romp, with Punch Brothers merging the sensibilities of Rice and Old Crow Medicine Show.
“Orphan Annie” is a low-key, richly harmonized slice of bluesy bluegrass, relying heavily on Kowert’s buzzing bass playing and a relatively simple banjo line. The sparse arrangement is a nice change of pace for the band. On the other end of the spectrum, “Pride of Man” opens with a haunting minor-key guitar solo and keeps the tension going throughout the song. Swirling banjo and bass accompany Thile’s intense singing, and the chaotic instrumental breakdown just before the quiet finish fits the track’s mood perfectly.
Thile’s other band, Nickel Creek, already recorded the song “House Carpenter” with Thile on lead vocals back in 2002, which presented a challenge for Punch Brothers to do something different. Their solution here is to lean into their progressive side and throw the Bill Monroe instrumental “Jerusalem Ridge” into the mix. Punch Brothers’ version of the song starts quietly but gradually increases the complexity and the tempo. The lyrics get darker as the story goes along and the music follows. As “House Carpenter”‘s lyrics end, Pikelny bursts forth playing the melody of “Jerusalem Ridge” while the rest of the band swirls around him. After a minute of this, Witcher takes over the theme, and the ensemble follow him, finishing out the piece in a bluegrass style.
Hell on Church Street closes with its most famous song, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. Punch Brothers play it noticeably quicker than Lightfoot and once again use the entire band to emphasize the song’s tension. Low, rumbling bass, guitar, banjo arpeggios, and atmospheric fiddle push the story’s storminess. When the song gets to the part where Lightfoot lists all the different Great Lakes, the vocals suddenly brighten up into three-part harmony. The harmonies quickly fade, though, and eventually, the band drop out, leaving Thile to sing the final verse of the song a cappella. The group return for one last run through the song’s central theme, letting the final chord ring out and slowly dissipate. It isn’t a warm and fuzzy way to finish an album, but it feels appropriate for this somber shipwreck song.
Punch Brothers’ previous album, All Ashore, leaned a little too far in the direction of quiet folk for my taste. For Hell on Church Street, it’s good to hear them getting back to the technical, challenging playing that got them tagged as “progressive bluegrass” in the first place. These tracks are filled with stylistic variety and interesting arrangement choices. It’s a fascinating project and a rewarding listen. Longtime fans of the band should get a kick out of this record, and hopefully, Tony Rice aficionados will appreciate the new interpretations of these songs.