New Blue Revue

The Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny takes his acoustic Newgrass supergroup on the road

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click to enlarge Noam Pikelny (center, top row) and his talented pals (Photo: Provided)
Noam Pikelny (center, top row) and his talented pals (Photo: Provided)

When Noam Pikelny brings his razor-edged Roots music to Oakley’s 20th Century Theater on Tuesday evening, he will be surrounded by a special group of all-star musicians. Culled from the best of his generation, Pikelny and crew will be showcasing the possibilities of progressive acoustic music writ large.

Pikelny is the 32-year-old banjo player for the acclaimed AltGrass group the Punch Brothers, featuring current $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, Chris Thile. Lately, however, Pikelny has made his own mark in the music world.

In 2010, Pikelny won the inaugural $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. He appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman soon afterward, collecting his check, participating in a music-related comedy skit with Martin and performing a tune on the program. Then, a couple of months ago, Pikelny’s solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, was nominated for a 2013 Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album. 

When Pikelny decided to do a tour of his own, he chose not to form a typical backup group — as in, hired hands relegated to putting the focus on the headliner. Instead, he grabbed up the best musicians within reach, not only to highlight the music on Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail but also to loosen the reins and let them rip on their own wonderful work. The artists joining Pikelny include Bryan Sutton, Luke Bulla, Ronnie McCoury and Barry Bales. 

“It is a really fun concept and I’m really excited to put this band together,” Pikelny says. “The Punch Brothers are taking some time off right now and everybody has an opportunity to collaborate on side projects that there hasn’t been any time or availability to pursue.” 

“I really love playing Bluegrass and these guys are some of my favorite musicians in the world and some of my favorite people,” he continues. “All of these guys are musicians that I try to find time to pick a few tunes with if we are at the same festival or if I’m passing through Nashville. It just seemed like a great opportunity to get everybody together and to showcase everyone’s music.”

Ronnie McCoury is the long-time mandolin player for his father, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Famer Del McCoury. The Del McCoury Band is one of the most awarded groups in the history of Bluegrass, but Ronnie is more than just his father’s son, having won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award eight times.

“Ronnie is one of the finest Bluegrass instrumentalists and figures that has ever come down the pike,” Pikelny says. “What we were looking at when we put this together was, ‘How do we keep everybody satisfied by playing the music they want to bring in, keeping everybody comfortable, yet also push the limits of what we can do?’ ”

“Ronnie is known for playing in one of the more traditional bands, but he is such a monster musician that he could play anything,” he adds. “So, while I’m really excited to hear him play some of my tunes, I’m more concerned with myself playing some of his traditional classic stuff. But, to me, that is what is going to be fun, hearing Ronnie interpreting something like ‘All Get Out’ from my new record, which is this bizarre, fast instrumental.”

Alison Krauss has won more Grammy awards than any female artist in history, with 27 nods. For 23 years, Barry Bales has been the bass player for Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. Still an in-demand session musician, Bales also garnered an IBMA Bass Player of the Year nod in 2008.

“I’ve only played with Barry informally, as in backstage at a festival, so that is a brand new relationship,” Pikelny says. “Barry is way into this project and he was the first choice. Bryan Sutton and I have been discussing this (type of tour) for a couple of years and Barry was always at the top of the list. He has played a lot with Bryan on various instrumental projects and they have done a lot of sessions together. Bryan submitted Barry’s name and I said, ‘Oh really? Do you think he would do this kind of tour?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Luke Bulla is a fiddler extraordinaire who is a regular performer with Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. A fiddle champion going back to his pre-teen years, Bulla has performed with a long list of great artists ranging from Jerry Douglas to Bela Fleck.

“Luke is an incredible talent as far as a singer and a fiddle player,” Pikelny says. “He has written some great material. I am connected to him through our time together in the John Cowan Band, so it is sweet for us to get to spend some time with each other. He is extremely versatile.”

If you go to see Pikelny’s group, you will find yourself watching one of the best guitarists on the planet in the aforementioned Sutton, who is widely considered to be the hottest hand in the acoustic flatpick guitar world right now.

“Bryan is definitely up in that pantheon of great flatpickers, and I think Bryan sets a really great example for all of the musicians connected to Roots music,” Pikelny says. “He’s really put his own stamp on flatpicking and he plays with such personality. Everybody knows it is Bryan Sutton when you hear him, within the first few seconds.” 

“He is such a student and an appreciator of the great flatpickers who came before him, including Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Clarence White and Dan Crar,” he adds. “I’ve always thought of Bryan as a role model. He and Chris Thile were two of the guys that were starting to emerge, offering something new while keeping this incredible sense of legitimacy and connection to what was great that had come before them.”

NOAM PIKELNY and his all-star Bluegrass troupe perform at the 20th Century Theater Tuesday. Find tickets and more info here .

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