Noam Pikelny imparts his brand on a packed Arlington house

Noam Pikelny
Iota Club and Café
Arlington, VA
December 11, 2011


Iota, northern Virginia’s premiere venue for acoustic music, was in rare form this past Sunday. The ticket line, which usually moves as fast as the doorman can make change and stamp hands, was backed up with hundreds of people queued up outside, some for quite some time.

The man of the evening was Noam Pikelny. In his early 20s, Pikelny toured with Leftover Salmon and then with the John Cowan Band. He now calls the Punch Brothers, a supergroup of young and talented musicians fronted by Nickel Creek mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile, his main group.

The show was billed as an evening with Noam, Tim O’Brien and Aoife (pronounced EEF-ah) O’Donovan, Crooked Still’s vocalist. The latter two are both featured on Pikelny’s new solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, but the before the  show had not even begun, it became clear that the lineup for the evening had been tweaked.

Iota is a small venue, so it would have been hard to miss Infamous Stringduster Jesse Cobb hanging at the bar or Mark Schatz working his way through the packed crowd with his upright bass; it turned out that O’Brien would not playing. Rather, the stellar lineup of Pikelny, O’Donovan, Cobb and Schatz would be joined by two of Noam’s Punch Brother band mates, Chris Eldridge on guitar and Gabe Witcher on the fiddle.

Noam opened with a joke — the tour, he informed the audience, sprang out of someone mistakenly ordering too many t-shirts for his new website. With that, the band was off. They flew through a quick, tight instrumental number that set the tone for the evening.

They then called Aoife, sitting just behind the guys, to the mic. Aoife has a magical, desultory voice. It is brusque and breathy while still driving like a freight train – more Gillian Welch than Allison Kraus. She handled vocals for half the songs of the evening, singing her heart out on each one and serving as a nice counterpart to Noam’s odd sense of humor. Early on in the show, she finished a song and then half laughed through her punch line as she told the crowd that she could not stop staring at a sign behind the bar that said “Soup – Today: Tomato Zucchini, Tonight: Noam Pikelny.” Noam, without missing a beat, quipped that when he was a kid in Chicago practicing the banjo, his father would ask him what he was doing, why he was working so hard. Noam of course responded that, “Dad, one day I’m gonna see my name in chalk.”

With that, he dedicated a song to all the aspiring musicians in the room. It was the swinging ragtime,“My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer,” a track from his new album. Throughout the night, the band played them all. They didn’t have Tim O’Brien to sing, so Gabe Witcher took a lead vocal. They didn’t have Steve Martin (yes, the Steve Martin is on Noam’s new album), so bassist Mark Schatz picked up his clawhammer banjo, and he and Noam did a banjo duet of “Cluck Old Hen.”Aoife, as well as the band, worked its way through Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird.”

At different points during the night, the band featured every member, so there were plenty of opportunities for every member of the project to impress the crowd, but it was clear whose show this was.

Pikelny is too young to be so good. He plays like a classical musician seeking to define something indefinable, with the old traditional styles he has under his belt popping their head out in avant garde ways, setting himself apart even by Nashville standards.

Noam wore an old man blazer throughout the show, and had a self-deprecating sense of humor, constantly nailing punch lines at his own expense. Yet all of this simply belied the fact that the kid can play.  The band played country ballads, bluegrass numbers, and classically-inspired pieces that would have been at home on a Punch Brothers album. There were songs with the whole band, or Pikelny-led duets: just banjo and fiddle, or banjo and bass. He even accompanied Aoife  on vocals, showing his additional talent.

By set break, word had spread that Ben Eldridge, guitarist Chris’ father and banjo player for The Seldom Scene, was in attendance, so the band dedicated “Mean Mother Blues” to him. Along with some searing banjo and mandolin work, the crowd was treated to a rollicking slap bass solo from Schatz.

The room was still packed when the band finished their second set, a compliment for any Sunday night performer. Schatz and Cobb took the stage first and played an Irish-tinged duet, with Cobb on mandolin and Schatz where he seems happiest, clogging along in the corner. The two did an inspired jig and continued it while the band kicked in.

Pikelny then said that there “had been requests for him to sing,” something that seemed to confuse him, but which he was willing to do nonetheless. He picked up a guitar for the first time of the evening, and the band crowded around one mic and sang “Miss Me When I’m Gone,” with Noam covering the bass vocal on the choruses.

With that, the band was done for the night. Noam thanked the crowd for coming out. The crowd thanked Noam for coming out. And clearly everyone was thrilled that someone had accidentally ordered too many t-shirts for his website.