Noam Pikelny moved into the forefront of acoustic music when he was tapped to sit in for the late Mark Vann of Leftover Salmon in 2002, and ultimately toured with the band until their hiatus. After leaving Leftover in 2004, he joined the John Cowan Band where he released his first solo album entitled In the Maze to critical acclaim. A chance meeting with Chris Thile, then of Nickel Creek, set forth a cascade of events that would facilitate Pikelnyâ€™s maturation as a musician and composer. It was this meeting at the 2004 Telluride Bluegrass Festival that would pave the way for the eventual formation of Punch Brothers, a group that, according to Pikelny, challenged him technically as a banjo player and conceptually as a musician. Pikelny went on to say that his entire style of playing was redefined through this collaboration, â€œWhen I listen to my playing before Punch Brothers, to my ears, it sounds like a different personâ€¦â€
Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is only Pikelnyâ€™s sophomore album, but it represents a period of musical transformation and heightened confidence. Noam Pikelny, as of late, has come into himself as a banjo virtuoso and composer.Â His rise in the acoustic music scene was recognized in 2010 when he was the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. The award is determined by a board by Steve Martin, Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, and Bela Fleck, among others. Â Martin, who met Noam on the New York music scene, refers to Pikelny as, â€œa player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.â€
The release of Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail was a personal challenge for Pikelny, but also for Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers, who marked this album as his official debut as producer.Â Noamâ€™s interest in Southern rites and Appalachia life is evident in the albumâ€™s title, which stems from a rural tradition of handicapping the favored in a race by having them carry a rail, which would signify a triumph against all odds. This symbolism is reflective of the lengthy gestation this album underwent prior to its release; seven full years were clocked between Pikelnyâ€™s two solo projects. The all-star band assembled for this album reads like a Mensa list of bluegrass virtuosos, and includes Tim Oâ€™Brien, Stuart Duncan, Chris Eldridge, Jerry Douglas and Thile.Â Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is sharp in conception and execution, but has a warm tone and is easily approachable. Pikelnyâ€™s ability to stand out among a group of world-class musicians is a testament to his talent on the banjo and his strength at musical arrangement.
The album opens with a beautifully composed piece entitled â€œJim Thompsonâ€™s Horse.â€ Immediately, the listener is able to recognize how Pikelnyâ€™s playing style and technical proficiency has been honed while touring with Punch Brothers. The opening track establishes the tempo and quality, and is followed up with another winner, â€œMy Mother Thinks Iâ€™m a Lawyer.â€ Â Aoife Oâ€™Donovan of Crooked Still was tapped by Pikelny for a reworked version of the Tom Waits classic, â€œFish and Bird,â€ Â and her angelic voice lends well to the emotional imagery this song creates in the context of the natural ebb and flow of the album. The instrumental version of â€œCluck Old Hen,â€ a popular Appalachian American fiddle and banjo tune, definitively marks Pikelnyâ€™s significant progress as a musician in the traditional roots music that gave him his start.Â A favorite of mine is â€œBoathouse on the Lullwater,â€ a pastoral song that introduces the listener to the impeccable talent of Douglas, and reiterates Pickelnyâ€™s evolution in musical composition and arrangement. The pace of the album picks back up with Thile and Bryan Sutton sitting in on â€œBear Dog Grit,â€ a tune that highlights Noamâ€™s confidence with the material and willingness to experiment. The album continues to shine with â€œDay Downâ€ featuring Martin, and â€œMilfordâ€™s Ree.â€ â€œAll Git Outâ€ is a smartly composed piece that was an excellent choice to close the album out with an emphatic bang.
Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail may only be Pikelnyâ€™s second album, but the musical feats that were achieved on this release will solidify his accomplishments on the banjo and his relevance to the bluegrass genre. This latest release is a modern bluegrass gem, an album with excellent song placement. The flow is abetted by reworked traditional and cover tunes that arenâ€™t forced, and original material that doesnâ€™t come across as contrived.
Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is out now on Compass Records.