For KDHX Radio, St. Louis
In “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail,” his latest solo release, Noam Pikelny has created a moving, playful collection that features so much top-flight playing it can make your head spin.
Pikelny’s main gig these days is as banjo player for the Punch Brothers, a band that he co-founded with Chris Thile. It’s a group known for pushing against, whenever not wholly ignoring, the traditions of bluegrass, a musical style from which the group takes its instrumentation. To say that they do it well is an understatement. Since they formed they’ve been at the epicentre of progressive acoustic music, skilfully charting new territory in an old musical world.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy going. Their performance of “Rye Whiskey” on Letterman last year was brash, cocky — and frankly brilliant. Their music is challenging and dense with rich musical ideas. It commands your attention, yet there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting required of the audience.
On “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail,” Pikelny takes many of the ideas that inform the work of the Punch Brothers and recreates them with a much lighter touch. The two traditional pieces included here — “Bob McKinney” and a clawhammer duet with Steve Martin on “Cluck Old Hen” — are as standard as they come, but they’re played in a wholly modern way. They may have started out as social songs, as indeed the majority of the traditional repertoire did, but here they are presented as clean, beautifully-arranged show pieces.
There’s a good bit of humour on this disc, too. “Bluegrass Diva,” the video created to promote the album, is as good an introduction to Pikelny as any. He’s just really, really funny. But even in this regard, Pikelny has taken a step away from the more rarefied setting of the Punch Brothers. The laughs here are more straight up, rather than ironic, which is kind of nice for a change. It also creates a very personal and personable tone — a tone that carries over even to tracks such as “Day Down” and “The Broken Drought” that are as serious as serious can get.
Pikelny rightly leaves a lot of space for the stellar line up of musicians that appear here. The album features guest appearances by Steve Martin, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile and Tim O’Brien. But there are also some great, great players that may not have the same level of public awareness, including David Grier and Bryan Sutton taking turns on guitar, and Mike Compton on mandolin. Fiddler Stuart Duncan at various points comes dangerously close to stealing the show. His fiddling, as on “Fish and Bird” and “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” stands out to the point of taking your breath away. In all, there is a lot to love in this collection. It’s clearly a part of an ongoing musical conversation — indeed, the first track “Jim Thompson’s Horse” begins so abruptly it feels a bit like you’ve joined it mid-sentence — and that’s what makes it so very good. It’s music that reaches out to the traditions as well as various communities of musicians, and brings them into a musical discussion. It is, I suspect, one of those albums that people will be talking about for a long time to come.