in performance: noam pikelny

noam pikelny. photo by justin camerer.

Noam Pikelny had his performance philosophy whittled down to an efficient credo that he proudly shared with his audience last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“Nobody cares if you play new music when you have no hits.”

With that, the Punch Brother mainstay presented a project of zero commercial familiarity – a solo banjo concert. Well, it was almost one. The sparsely adorned Weisiger stage also included three guitars of various lineage – a six string acoustic (utilized during a intimately rustic version of “The Wreck of the Old 97”), a Telecaster (plucked with tastefully vintage country electricity on “My Tears Don’t Show”) and an oddly shaped 1928 plectrum guitar (whose four strings provided the Josh Ritter murder ballad mash-up “Folk Bloodbath” and the Pikelny original “The Great Falls” with a hybrid voice echoing steel guitar as well as banjo).

Everything else, though, was Pikelny, his whispery, old world baritone of a singing voice (which he tagged as “funerary”) and solo banjo tunes that were embracing bluegrass tradition one moment and gleefully fleeing from all expectations associated with it the next.

The show opening “Waveland,” for instance, unfolded with hummingbird like speed, lightness and agility while “Sugar Maple” operated with more patiently paced momentum, equal delicacy and a dash of folkish fancy. Even the most deep seeded songs of bluegrass ancestry went through multiple stylistic rebirths, as with a medley of three tunes (“Mississippi Waltz,” “Ashland Breakdown” and “Jerusalem Ridge”) from 2013’s “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” – a record that offered banjo reconstructions of fiddler Baker’s original variations of mandolinist (and longtime employer) Monroe’s compositions. Baker made Monroe’s music often swing with jazz-like flexibility. While Pikelny’s versions last night restored some of the bluegrass luster, the solo setting (unlike the record’s quintet lineup) also revealed a starkness more clearly approximating the blues.

One could go on at length about the scholarly technique and sense of invention Pikelny put on very unassuming display. Half the magic of last night’s show, though, was the way the music was presented. Pikelny’s possessed a wry but engaging sense of humor which heightened the accessibility level of a concert that could have easily, for all of its honorable artistic intent, seemed foreign or even abstract to unsuspecting listeners. Instead, a set closing cover of Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll be a Long Time Gone)” came with purposely indecipherable instructions for an equally improbable sing-a-long of a warp speed chorus. “Oh, this is going to be good,” he said in anticipation of the vocal train wreck to come. The banjoist also shared a hysterical account of a Grand Ole Opry performance centering on the potential mispronunciation of his name by host Roy Clark. Instead, the country veteran introduced champion fiddler (and Pikelny’s duet partner) Stuart Duncan as Cisco Kid actor Duncan Renaldo.

Best of all was a hapless explanation of how Pikelny’s moonlighting projects from Punch Brothers have involved successively smaller ensembles, resulting in his current unaccompanied performance status. He then joked the only logical follow-up would be “an avant garde evening of silence.”

“Get your tickets now. That one will be over in the big hall.”

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