Tag Archives: noam pikelny

Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival: A Rollicking Good Time

The growth of a festival is always an interesting and fun thing to pay attention to. That look back when you can say I remember when so-and-so played this festival or when it was only this big or when this amazing moment happened. Sometimes that growth is slow and over many years. Sometimes it seems to happen in the blink of an eye. In the case of the Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival held in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, it was a blink and you will miss it kind of growth. In only in its 2nd year, Charm City saw its attendance almost triple as it moved from the cozy confines of the grounds of the Union Craft Brewery to the expansive, gorgeous stretch of Druid Hill Park next to the Rawlings Conservatory.


Despite its growth Charm City has stayed true to the mission stated by Festival co-founder Jordan August to “focus on traditional and regional bluegrass.” With the inclusion of some of the most talented bluegrass-inspired bands in the Maryland area, that this year included Grand Ole Ditch, Highland Hill Boys, Ken & Brad Kolodner, Trace Friends Mucho, Mad Sweet Pangs, and Cris Jacobs & Friends they did just that.

At the same time this year’s edition also carried forth August’s other goal to turn this event “into a weekend long, all day and late night experience for the whole region and country to see.” To furth that idea Charm City featured a line-up that was stacked with Audie Blaylock & Redline, Sierra Hull, Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny & Friends, and headliner Jerry Douglas, capped off with a late-night show from Matt Butler and the Everyone Orchestra featuring Danny Louis (Govt. Mule), Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass), Andrew Altman (Railroad Earth), Cris Jacobs (The Bridge), Nick Piccinicci (Floodwood), and Jami Novak (Cabinet) at the 8×10 club.


The spirit of collaboration that is such a big part of the Everyone Orchrestra was the overriding theme throughout the day at Druid Hill Park as sit-ins, special pairings and unique configurations of bands was the motif of the day. While not every band to hit the stage featured a sit-in or some unique line-up, it just seemed that way. Whether it was the guest laden set of hometown favorite Cris Jacobs that saw Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass, Audie Blaylock, and Nick Piccinicci from Floodwood all join in, the sit-in of dobro-master Jerry Douglas with an already special collection of banjo-extraordinaire Noam Pikelny’s friends, the pairing of Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Edlridge and jazz-guitarist Julian Lage, to the hometown love-fest of fiddler Patrick McAvinue joining in with Trace Friends Mucho, Charm City Fest was a day-long highlight that spanned traditional picking, adventurous jams, sublime singing, and a rollicking good time.

1200 Part Harmony with Punch Brothers (Or Getting Meta with Punch Brothers)


Punch Brothers

March 26th, 2014

Capitol Theater

Madison, WI


punch brothers clinchThe Capitol Theater in downtown Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts typically plays host to classical music, opera and Broadway-style shows. It is a beautiful venue, with lush curtains, amazing acoustics and room for about 1200. On Wednesday, the Capitol Theater had the honor to host something a little bit different; it’s stage was graced by one of the strongest acoustic bands around: Punch Brothers.


Punch Brothers are Chris Thile on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and Madison favorite son Paul Kowert on upright bass. While their instrumentation is that of a traditional bluegrass band, there is nothing traditional about them.


They opened their set with Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” before launching into “This Girl,” a driving, emo-grass original with Punch Brothers signature blend of melodrama, excitement, tension, beauty and wonder. Chris Thile has been playing music since he was a small child. He has spent the majority of his life touring and he has had the amazing fortune to do so alongside some of the world’s greatest musicians. But to see him on stage, his excitement never wanes. He is always excited, always jumping around, dancing, bopping with enthusiasm. Chris Thile isn’t just a great musician, he’s a genius. (The MacAurthur Foundation says so!) But on stage, he is a young boy being offered an opportunity to live out his dream. And on this night, on this particular stage, emanating aura and ambiance, the band finished “This Girl,” took a moment and then leaned into their mics for a tight, three-part harmonied, “Amen.”


156After making a joke at his own expense and reflecting on the beauty of the venue, Thile asked the crowd if they had room in their heart for the five-string banjo. Needless to say, they did. And with that, Pikelny blasted right through it with the raw power and ability that he brings to every show. Punch Brothers are a super-group built around the genius of Thile. But it’s hard to imagine this band without Pikelny, a true master on his instrument. He can be subtle and graceful with ease (something that cannot be said of every great banjo player); he can perfectly augment the eerie melodies and ethereal musical faces of this super-group. But when he is unleashed, he can move mountains, he can level cities. He is a force on a five-string banjo.


After showing off some amazing instrumental mastery, the band introduced a new song called “Magnet.” “Magnet” is a quirky three-minute pop song about the gravitational pull that people can have on each other. It would not have seemed out of place on a Justin Timberlake album, with its strong and catchy hook, funny-but-not-silly lyrics, driving verses and danceable beat. And of course, it’s a love song, without ever mentioning the girl of the song’s affection.


The band then took off their collective quirky hat and launched into their emo-swing-classical track, “Don’t Get Married Without Me.” On a dime, Thile went from pop-star to crooner, the band flawlessly transitioning right alongside him; Witcher and Pikelny really locking in for the chaos and the exuberant flourishes that help make this song soar beyond its form.


punch brothersPikelny introduced the next track as being dedicated to Wisconsin’s greatest export… beside Paul Kowert: cold beer. They then played “New York City,” before Thile called on the band to raise their red plastic cups to the crowd, “Cheers, ya’ll, this is fun as hell.”


After a heartfelt “Missy,” complete with a fiddle solo from Witcher so intense it seemed to briefly shock Thile, Chris asked his band mates if they felt a shift in the air. Eldridge readily agreed that something was happening. Thile asked if it suddenly felt more French. Again, there was no disagreement from Eldridge. Thile explained that the band only knew one French song, and it was by Claude Debussy. The crowd cheered and Thile asked if there were any Debussy-Heads in the audience that night. When the crowd cheered louder, Thile launched them into a rousing chant of “Claude! Claude! Claude!” Many a classical composer yearns for the day to hear his name chanted by the masses in a sold-out theater. This was Claude’s day. They played “Passepied,” revealing the true mastery that Punch Brothers has outside of genre or limitation.


The band then called out opener Aoife O’Donovan to add her breathy charm to their set.  She joined Thile for the choruses of “Here and Heaven,” adding an ancient sound to the Isles-lilted ballad that the two co-wrote along with Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.


O’Donovan left the stage too soon and the band launched into “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a wonderful track that is part Eastern European, part French gypsy, and part Irish pop song. On the quirkier and more off-beat interludes, Thile likes to pretend he is a robot, stammering and stuttering through his melodies. Witcher took the mic for his lament about “City Girls.” In the middle of the track, the band dropped out and Kowert drove the song solo, much to the delight of his hometown crowd.


Punch Brothers are a band that moves between styles of music with ease. They use bluegrass instruments to play anything but. So it was almost surprising when Pikelny introduced the next song, Kenny Baker’s “Wheel Hoss,” and the band ripped into this raging fast, traditional bluegrass number as if they had never played anything but a fiddle tune.


155Once the band went traditional, they decided to stick around for one more. Eldridge led the band in “Through the Bottom of a Glass,” Paul Craft’s classic country song about the world looking better after your cup is empty. In the middle of the song, the band suddenly opened it up, revealing their meta-nature, taking the traditional Nashville walking line after the chorus to the absurd, walking down, down, down before repeating the chorus. But the joke wasn’t done, it was just starting. This time, Kowert pulled out his bow and played the classic lick, classically, and then again an octave up, and then again, and again. Working his way from the bottom of the neck to the very top, he finished the final lick directly on top of his bridge. At this point, the crowd cheered and Thile threw Kowert’s arm in the air, declaring him the champion. His grandmother in the crowd must have been very proud.



Thile announced to the crowd that “you are amazing to play music for,” and the band finished out the set with “Whose Feeling Young Now?” the title track of their most recent full length album.


While the capacity crowd was cheering for more, a tech came out and set up a condenser mic in the middle of the stage. Thile literally skipped back out, the rest of the band following closely behind. Thile explained that if anyone had seen Inside Llewyn Davis, they had seen a band perform this next song. The band in the movie wasn’t Punch Brothers, but they looked a lot like them. Chris sang solo a cappella through the first verse of “The Auld Triangle,” an Irish prison lament, before being joined by the band for stellar five-part harmonies through the refrain. The back and forth continued throughout the song, culminating in the comedic final verse, where the protagonist accepts his lot of life, simply wishing he could be serving his sentence in the women’s prison. Thile invited the crowd to join in for a final chorus and the stellar five-part harmony became an all-encompassing 1200-part harmony, which shook the curtains and added new dimension to one anonymous prisoner’s lament.


Not prepared to end the night on such a somber note, Thile asked if anyone was thirsty, before launching into crowd favorite, “Rye Whiskey.” Instead of the curtains shaking, this time it was the floor, as the full crowd stomped their feet in time and sang along about the age old truth that life is simply better with rye whiskey.


Follow Josh Klemons on twitter @jlemonsk

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.



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.

Leftover Salmon ends hiatus, confirms summer festival appearances

Colorado-based Leftover Salmon announces it will return to the stage later this year.  Confirmed by a statement today from band manager John Joy the return will mark the end to the band’s 27-month hiatus.

Following the band’s last live performance on New Year’s Eve 2004 in Boulder, audiences nationwide will once again hear the trademark polyethnic-cajun-slamgrass sound that propelled the group from its humble Rocky Mountain beginnings to international critical acclaim.

The returning lineup for Leftover Salmon features Vince Herman (acoustic guitar, vocals), Drew Emmitt (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Jeff Sipe (drums), Greg Garrison (bass, vocals), Bill McKay (keyboards, vocals), and Noam Pikelny (banjo).

The confirmed performances have the band making festival appearances on opposite coasts including the High Sierra Music Festival in Northern California and the All Good Music Festival in West Virginia’s hills.

Confirmed 2007 Performances:

High Sierra Music Festival – Quincy, CA 
2 performances: Saturday, July 7 and Sunday, July 8

All Good Music Festival – Masontown, WV
Sunday, July 15


Leftover Salmon was formed by accident in 1989, when a local band, the Salmon Heads, asked members of the Left Hand String Band to fill some missing spots in its lineup.  The synergy worked and the resulting quintet went on to pioneer its own genre. 

After the independent release of Bridges to Bert in 1993 and the 1995 live follow-up Ask The Fish, Leftover Salmon gained a spot on the H.O.R.D.E. festival tour and a contract with Hollywood Records. Their Hollywood debut and second studio album, Euphoria, continued to define their eclectic sound and introduced many songs that would become classics for the band.

Other releases include The Nashville Sessions (1999) featuring scores of famous Nashville artists and session musicians as collaborators; Live (2002) the first recording with the new rhythm section, O Cracker, Where Art Thou? (2003) featuring Cracker members David Lowery and Johnny Hickman with LS as the backing band, and Leftover Salmon (2004) first studio record since the loss of founding member, banjoist Mark Vann.

Each of the band’s releases cements its contemporary sound with the solid genre-bending fusion of newgrass, folk and blues. Through the course of the initial 15 years of Leftover Salmon has performed music with such contemporaries as Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Pete Wernick, Col. Bruce Hampton, Oteil Burbridge, Bill Payne, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Pete Sears, Todd Park Mohr, Tony Furtado, Theresa Andersson, along with members of the The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Yonder Mountain String Band and dozens of additional artists.

The band continues to break new ground with its highly energetic live performances and initiate new fans with each show.

Official Leftover Salmon website: www.leftoversalmon.com

Chris Thile: How to Grow a Woman From the Ground

Adding to the spirit of adventuresome risk taking in roots based music that was prevalent on 2004's Deceiver recording, Chris Thile chips away fervently to break down musical barriers on his latest release, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground.

Mixing classical pieces with genre stretching, picking interpretations of modern rock compositions, Thile collects the broad based talents of Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Greg Garrison on bass, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and Noam Pikelny on banjo. 

Thile's mandolin playing talents are formidable, and he brings fire and passion to the traditional arrangement, “If the Sea Was Whiskey” and a cover of Jimmie Rodgers' “Brakeman's Blues.”

But the more challenging material for Thile is in the alternative and improvised country influenced takes of The Strokes' “Heart in a Cage” and a bluesy, confessional version of Jack White's “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”

Chris Thile continues to reinvent and re-imagine the parameters of the mandolin accented bluegrass form