in performance: noam pikelny/victor furtado

noam pikelny

Banjo ace/Punch Brother Noam Pikelny wasn’t about to about to let a few technical glitches and false starts derail his fun at last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre. Cracks and pops resulting from a faulty onstage cable caused a false start on the opening Jim Thompson’s Horse. But a second take revealed what made the tune shine: expert interplay from an especially learned band – fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge (two of Pikelny’s fellow Punch Brothers), bassist Mark Schatz and mandolinist Jesse Cobb – as well as a compositional sensibility that took serious cues from progressive minded “New Grass” acoustic players of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Later, a feisty version of the more barnyard friendly bluegrass instrumental My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer highlighted by fine gypsy fiddle turns by Witcher had to be repeated after more cracks and static erupted, this time from Pikelny’s gear. “I think we should all look very sternly at my pedal boards,” the banjoist remarked. “Actually, I hear Billy Joe Shaver is playing across town (the Texas honky tonk giant, in fact, kicked off a show at Cosmic Charlie’s about a half hour after WoodSongs wound  up). I suspect foul play.”

But the tech problems didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the evening, least of all Pikelny’s. The game plan for the six songs he performed from his new Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail album was to create an industrious string band sound that put his bandmates – Witcher, especially – in the driver’s seat as much as himself. Still, half the fun came from watching the limber rhythmic turns Pikelny navigated when his playing wasn’t in the spotlight.

The lyricism turned elegant during Boathouse on the Lullwater, wistful for a hushed reading of Tom Waits’ Fish and Bird that added Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan to the mix and ruggedly mischievous for the encore of Bob McKinney (with Witcher taking over the vocal lead Tim O’Brien provided the tune on Beat the Devil).

Sharing the bill last night was 11 year old banjo champion Victor Furtado – a young player who displayed a remarkably intuitive command of Celtic-inspired, old world (as opposed to simply “old timey”) influences.

Pikelny and Furtado also teamed up for a duet arrangement of Florida Blues that allowed these two generational players to discover considerable stylistic common ground.

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