For Steve Martin, comedy and singing came first. Then he embarked on a career as an acclaimed banjoist. Though Noam Pikelny is very much still actively pursuing his interest in banjo playing, he’s also picking up on a few of Steve’s old tricks.
Early in Winter 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing Pikelny on his first solo tour on what had to be the coldest and windiest night in recent memory. At the very least it was the most brutal that I’ve attempted a walk from a train station to a theater. There in Bayshore, Pikelny filled the space between songs, including many on this album, with standup comedy. There were memories of senility at the Opry and an idea for using the slide guitar to prevent suicide. The crowd, including myself, thought he was consistently hilarious. When I spoke to him for the March 20 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, Pikelny had a different theory.
“It’s possible that it was hypothermia that led you to enjoy my banter,” Pikelny said, deadpan. “Maybe that was all fueled by some sort of primal survival instinct that laughing would maybe keep you alive.”
While not touring and recording solo, Pikelny is the banjoist for Punch Brothers. The two roles have made him somewhat of a universal favorite in the world of progressive bluegrass, particularly since he released the incredibly titled Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. His latest album, which happens to be called Universal Favorite, finds him singing on one of his records for the first time. Pikelny admitted he doesn’t have the most natural bluegrass voice.
“So much of bluegrass vocals kind of hinges on the high and lonesome sound and singing at the top of people’s ranges,” Pikelny said. “Well, the top of my range is still in the subterranean zone. I found music that seemed to fit my voice that I felt comfortable singing that would also be a springboard for instrumental playing.”
Pikelny chose exceptionally well when it came to which cover songs he sang on. “Old Banjo” worked exceptionally well thanks to Pikelny’s exception ability to convey dry humor while singing. “My Tears Don’t Show” and “Sweet Sunny South” benefited from the deep, glum notes not many other bluegrass singers could hit. “Folk Bloodbath,” a Josh Ritter tune, used a little of both of those traits. It’s only “I’ve Been A Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)” where Pikelny runs into the limits of his voice on a few stretched out notes and some fast spoken words.
As to be expected, the best part of Universal Favorite is the banjo playing. Pikelny is pictured standing alone on a small island on the album’s cover, which is appropriate considering he’s the only musician on the album. It’s hard to tell on lush tracks like “Hen Of The Woods” and “Moretown Hop,” both of which blend twang and classical music the way one might expect progressive bluegrass. “The Great Falls” is a serene track played on a slide guitar and the attention-grabbing “Waveland” is almost unrecognizable as a banjo tune but just as graceful.
He described his approach to this album as wanting to provide an “intimate glimpse of the banjo.”
“There are a lot of things that the banjo can do that don’t necessarily happen when there’s a five piece band,” Pikelny said. “The banjo can actually be very warm and can sustain when just played solo. It was a chance to write music in a different fashion and come up with tunes that would stand up without interpretation from a band. It delivered me to a spot where I was making music that was very direct, and I wanted that to be encapsulated on the record.”
It’s Pikelny’s ability to showcase the lesser known qualities of the banjo that will likely make this album a favorite among new grass fans.
Pikelny will be playing Bowery Ballroom at a seated show on Friday, March 24. There will be sublime banjo playing and probably more than a few laughs, preferably without any hypothermia. And listen below to Pikelny explain his history with “Old Banjo” before the show airs.
Photo by Justin Camerer from Noam’s website.