Noam Pikelny : Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail

Noam Pikelny moved into the forefront of acoustic music when he was tapped to sit in for the late Mark Vann of Leftover Salmon in 2002, and ultimately toured with the band until their hiatus. After leaving Leftover in 2004, he joined the John Cowan Band where he released his first solo album entitled In the Maze to critical acclaim. A chance meeting with Chris Thile, then of Nickel Creek, set forth a cascade of events that would facilitate Pikelny’s maturation as a musician and composer. It was this meeting at the 2004 Telluride Bluegrass Festival that would pave the way for the eventual formation of Punch Brothers, a group that, according to Pikelny, challenged him technically as a banjo player and conceptually as a musician. Pikelny went on to say that his entire style of playing was redefined through this collaboration, “When I listen to my playing before Punch Brothers, to my ears, it sounds like a different person…”

Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is only Pikelny’s sophomore album, but it represents a period of musical transformation and heightened confidence. Noam Pikelny, as of late, has come into himself as a banjo virtuoso and composer.  His rise in the acoustic music scene was recognized in 2010 when he was the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. The award is determined by a board by Steve Martin, Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, and Bela Fleck, among others.  Martin, who met Noam on the New York music scene, refers to Pikelny as, “a player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.”

The release of Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail was a personal challenge for Pikelny, but also for Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers, who marked this album as his official debut as producer.  Noam’s interest in Southern rites and Appalachia life is evident in the album’s title, which stems from a rural tradition of handicapping the favored in a race by having them carry a rail, which would signify a triumph against all odds. This symbolism is reflective of the lengthy gestation this album underwent prior to its release; seven full years were clocked between Pikelny’s two solo projects. The all-star band assembled for this album reads like a Mensa list of bluegrass virtuosos, and includes Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Chris Eldridge, Jerry Douglas and Thile.  Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is sharp in conception and execution, but has a warm tone and is easily approachable. Pikelny’s ability to stand out among a group of world-class musicians is a testament to his talent on the banjo and his strength at musical arrangement.

The album opens with a beautifully composed piece entitled “Jim Thompson’s Horse.” Immediately, the listener is able to recognize how Pikelny’s playing style and technical proficiency has been honed while touring with Punch Brothers. The opening track establishes the tempo and quality, and is followed up with another winner, “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.”  Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still was tapped by Pikelny for a reworked version of the Tom Waits classic, “Fish and Bird,”  and her angelic voice lends well to the emotional imagery this song creates in the context of the natural ebb and flow of the album. The instrumental version of “Cluck Old Hen,” a popular Appalachian American fiddle and banjo tune, definitively marks Pikelny’s significant progress as a musician in the traditional roots music that gave him his start.  A favorite of mine is “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” a pastoral song that introduces the listener to the impeccable talent of Douglas, and reiterates Pickelny’s evolution in musical composition and arrangement. The pace of the album picks back up with Thile and Bryan Sutton sitting in on “Bear Dog Grit,” a tune that highlights Noam’s confidence with the material and willingness to experiment. The album continues to shine with “Day Down” featuring Martin, and “Milford’s Ree.” “All Git Out” is a smartly composed piece that was an excellent choice to close the album out with an emphatic bang.

Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail may only be Pikelny’s second album, but the musical feats that were achieved on this release will solidify his accomplishments on the banjo and his relevance to the bluegrass genre. This latest release is a modern bluegrass gem, an album with excellent song placement. The flow is abetted by reworked traditional and cover tunes that aren’t forced, and original material that doesn’t come across as contrived.

Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is out now on Compass Records.