by Wyatt Camery
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
I have only recently become a Punch Brothers fan. This is in part due to my private studies with Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the band and Oberlin Class of ‘04. A gem of Oberlin’s “celebrity” alumni, Eldridge is not only one of the most creative acoustic guitar flatpickers working today, he has been a wonderful musical mentor for me and my peers the past year. While I could write this whole article about my time working with him, I will refrain and, as he has encouraged me to do, simply focus on the music. His main artistic project, the critically acclaimed string band Punch Brothers, released their sixth studio album, Hell on Church Street, on January 14. Before we dive into the music, allow me to provide some context.
Hell on Church Street is unlike any Punch Brothers project as it is a cover album through and through. It is a reimagination of Tony Rice’s seminal Church Street Blues, a stripped down solo venture from the late acoustic guitar titan. Eldridge worked with Rice during his time at Oberlin, and remained close for the rest of Rice’s life. In a genre that typically serves the ensemble, Rice’s album is an intimate presentation of his unmatched flatpicking ability, understated yet inviting vocal stylings, and penchant for interpreting other songwriters' songs, from traditional bluegrass to contemporary singer-songwriter styles. Punch Brothers issued the following statement on the album: “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.” Indeed, Punch Brothers’ reworking of Church Street Blues showcases their ability to construct (and subsequently play) a highly conceptual and cohesive arrangement using the traditional instrumentation of a string band.
They lean into the conceptual element of this talent on this record. And why not? Punch Brothers have resisted the “bluegrass” labels from the outsiders while being distanced from the in crowd. Covering the most famous bluegrass album of all time then presents an interesting challenge, on top of the fact that it is performed by one man (and his brother, with whom I share a name) while they are five. They have wrought every emotion — particularly, dread, longing, and confusion — out of these songs that they can between their 27 collective strings (and voices). Wielding those strings at points more as vessels for sound generation than traditional bluegrass instruments, the album sometimes leans more emotive sonic tapestry than toe-tapping, in a most enrapturing way, though. For bluegrass fans, this album won’t be just another Tony Rice hack. For non-grass fans, it’s a testament to what an acoustic string band is capable of.
String band music breeds a tension within it, between the individual and the band. This tension is exemplified by no band better than Punch: they are all bonafide virtuosos. It’s a true all-star group, but they don’t read like that at all, mainly due to their “song-first” approach. In concert, you get to see their mind boggling talents as individuals, but what really stands out is how unified they are, and how effortlessly they seem to enact what Eldridge calls the “mind meld.” It’s certainly one of the greatest musical feats I’ve witnessed. On the Hell on Church Street tour, they use only one microphone on stage, in the tradition of bluegrass. Each player weaves in and out of the song when necessary, guiding your attention like magicians, starting and stopping on a dime as if they were one. I’ve worked on this tension between the band and individual with Eldridge and my own band here at Oberlin. Particularly in his Mindfulness in Music Making course, we picked apart the anxieties and challenges of being a musician. Applying this to string band music in particular, we then wondered how we can best utilize our own talents for the greater sake of the music. In much string band music, you hear otherworldly technical work, which makes any young player want to play as fast and hard as they can. Yet this leads to tension, both physical and mental. Eldridge’s main focus in teaching is easing tension, primarily physical, when playing your instrument. Alleviating this frequently ignored problem can lead to more fluid, comfortable, and economical playing, producing better tone.
Zooming out, the individual player also faces a tension of wanting to showcase their skills. Yet when playing with a band, you can further alleviate these tensions by staying present, and listening to and supporting your bandmates in what they’re playing. Punch Brothers do both of these things so exceptionally well. Yet, as virtuosos, sometimes even they can overdo it. Indeed, Eldridge has described the dangers of making heady and complex music. Marrying pop and classical music on bluegrass instruments isn’t always easy listening. After all, as Eldridge has frequently reminded me, we’re all just human, expert or novice, picker or listener. While some arrangements on Church Street may seem overwrought compared to Rice’s recordings, they offer a thoughtful, unique listening experience of songs which have been recorded many times before. If you want the beautiful, straight ahead (although technically complex) approach that Rice brings to these songs, that’s wonderful. It’s still always going to be with us. If you see Punch Brothers’ version as a new way to experience the tunes––not a replacement––then I think their new album is a pretty exciting opportunity. An acoustic band working with material from generations past, Punch Brothers inject vitality and electricity into these songs on Hell on Church Street.