Being a big Punch Brothers fan, there was no way I was going to miss this show.
Noam Pikelny is a celebrated banjo player (the recent recipient of the 2010 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass), and usually my favorite part of the Punch Brothers’ live shows, punctuating Chris Thile’s ramblings with a witty remark here and there.
As remarked sarcastically by Pikelny himself several times throughout the show, instrumental banjo music is not the most commercially viable genre these days. In answer to this, and to the question of why a 30-year-old guy from the city is playing such “rural” music, Pikelny simply indicated that “much of the repertoire is made up of songs about infidelity and shootin’,” two subjects that are very familiar to us city folk.
This show — Noam Pikelny & Friends — featured two other Punch Brothers, fiddler Gabe Witcher and guitarist Chris Eldridge. Also on board were bassist Mark Schatz and mandolin player Jesse Cobb. The band, as expected, tore the roof off. For as many times as I’ve seen Pikelny play, I’m still amazed at how casually he can rip through a bluegrass or country tune. The set focused on Pikelny’s newest solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail.
Also present was singer Aoife O’Donovan, who somehow managed to steal the show every time she came on stage. The band played a lot of her material as well, and cycled through the two songbooks, adding a traditional tune every once in a while.
O’Donovan was not the only accomplished vocalist in the group. Gabe Witcher sings in Punch Brothers, and he took the lead on a number of tunes in this show. We even got the rare chance to hear Chris Eldridge sing, but not before Pikelny told a baffling story about the last time he sang on stage, several years ago. Apparently, 15 seconds into the song, a man came up to the front of the stage and started pounding on it, shouting “Final frontier, final frontier!” I don’t know about you, but if that had happened to me, I probably wouldn’t sing on stage too often either. Thankfully, that did not happen this time, and it was really a treat to hear him.
It was the last night of the tour, and Pikelny & Friends had definitely had a bit to drink (come to think of it, have I ever seen them play sober?) Perhaps due to this, or due to the lack of Thile’s presence, the evening took on a much more subdued tone than a Punch Brothers show usually does.
Pikelny as a front man was very casual, and didn’t seem too concerned when they lapsed into long stretches of silence or tuning. In fact, he was nice enough to extend the offer to the audience and let us take some time to tune as well. He also (jokingly, I assume) told the audience to take a bathroom break before they played his “Broken Drought,” a slow, elegiac waltz with a chord progression that calls Radiohead to mind. Sadly, it seemed like one too many people took this advice and missed out on one of the highlights of the evening.
Note: Danny is an intern at Schubas.
- Noam Pikelny is one-fifth of the Punch Brothers. The band is: Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass).