Punch Brothers founder Noam Pikelny brings solo show to Beaver Creek
If you go …
What: Noam Pikelny.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9.
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, 68 Avondale Lane, Beaver Creek.
More information: Tickets are available now at the VPAC box office, by calling 970-845-8497 or at http://www.vilarpac.org.
BEAVER CREEK — Three-time Grammy-nominated banjoist Noam Pikelny brings his picking skills to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek today. Formerly of Leftover Salmon and the John Cowan Band, Pikelny is a founding member of the string ensemble Punch Brothers and released his fourth solo record, “Universal Favorite,” on Friday, March 3.
The Vilar Center caught up with Pikelny to learn more about his career, what he loves about the banjo and the autobiographical origins of his new album.
VPAC: You used to play with Leftover Salmon, what was that like?
PIKELNY: Playing with Leftover Salmon was an amazing experience for me. I was fresh out of college. I was what, maybe 22 or 23, I moved from Central Illinois, from the cornfields, to the mountains of Colorado. I lived in Nederland, and I went from playing in a local college bluegrass band called Waffle Hoss to touring around the country with this national act that had the most devoted fans.
It was a lightning round education in just being out there and playing music and being part of a community. Those guys were master performers and amazing showmen, and they really forged such an amazing and deep connection with their audience. And I think that’s something that’s stuck with me to this day, regardless of the style of music I’m playing or regardless of the context. I feel like that was something really important from them.
Support Local Journalism
VPAC: So you must be pretty familiar with Colorado then — have you spent much time in the mountains?
PIKELNY: As I mentioned before, I lived in Nederland when I was playing in Leftover Salmon and then moved down to North Boulder. The mountains of Colorado are special to me, and they’re inseparable from the Colorado festival scene.
In particular, Telluride has been kind of a yearly marker, a landmark or milestone, in the calendar for me and so many other bluegrass musicians. Every year to make that pilgrimage to Telluride, to immerse ourselves in the mountains and to focus on the love of music and sharing that, that’s something really special.
I’m not much of a skier or a snowboarder. I’ve always been a pretty klutzy person and always worried that I would break a wrist or break an arm pre-show if I went up onto the mountain, so my connection is more with all the great music that happens out in the mountains.
VPAC: Is there a big difference from the Leftover days to your current Punch Brothers shows?
PIKELNY: Stylistically, the bands are completely different. Leftover Salmon obviously was kind of this amalgamation of so many great folk music styles, with bluegrass being a huge component, but the rock ’n’ roll element that was part of Leftover Salmon was the main difference between kind of what we’re doing in the band and Leftover Salmon.
It was just, it was more of a rock snow, and while we can get loud with acoustic instruments in Punch Brothers and turn up, and we have plenty of that influence, it was a different environment. I think there may be a little bit more of a listening room vibe, sometimes at a Punch Brothers show versus a dancing audience.
VPAC: You started playing the banjo at 10 years old. How did you get into that over say the clarinet, trumpet or a more traditional childhood instrument?
PIKELNY: I grew up in Chicago and my brother was taking mandolin lessons. My brother saw a bluegrass band play at his school as part of a traveling, rotating arts program, and he was inspired to learn the mandolin. And he would take lessons every week, and while he was at his mandolin lessons, I would sit in the park with my mom and we’d throw a baseball back and forth and eventually I became a little jealous of his hobby and I wanted to learn an instrument of my own.
But I wasn’t too picky on what it would be. I was willing to learn anything, but my parents thought it would be kind neat or convenient if I learned an instrument that would match up with my brother’s stylistically. So they suggested the banjo, envisioning that we could play music with each other and eventually start a family band and go out on the road and make them lots and lots of money so that my parents could retire and never work again.
That didn’t work out, but I really did take to the banjo and really enjoyed playing it. My brother still plays some mandolin as a hobby.
VPAC: You’ve played a couple of times publicly with Steve Martin, have the two of you formed a banjo bond?
PIKELNY: The community of banjo players and bluegrass musicians, acoustic musicians, it’s such a close-knit community, so it’s hard to spend time with these people who are just wonderful artists and fascinating people and to not, you know, be drawn to them and be connected to them.
I feel really lucky to have spent some time with Steve Martin through the events around the Steve Martin banjo award, and then Punch Brothers got to open for him and the Steep Canyon Rangers a few years back on a summer tour, and so we’ve gotten to spend some time with him and I think we’re really connected through the music.
I admire him tremendously. I feel like he’s the gold standard for pushing yourself as an artist and for keeping the forward momentum as an artist. He just has a voracious appetite for so many different things — musically, artistically, comedy-wise — and getting to spend time around him and hear his stories and getting to learn a little bit about his process and his path has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve been privy to.
VPAC: You are a true bluegrass guru, what other genres do you dabble in, if any?
PIKELNY: I wouldn’t call myself a true bluegrass guru. I’ve always felt like kind of an outside or imposter, just being from Chicago, which isn’t necessarily the fertile grounds of where bluegrass was born. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, but I have such deep appreciation for traditional bluegrass music, and the record I made, “Noam Pikelny plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe,” was really kind of a labor of love as a tribute to those styles.
Are there other genres I dabble in? I would still call myself a bluegrass musician first and foremost because that’s kind of the world I am mostly closely associated with, but I at times have dabbled in playing country music, and at times have been working on some jazz and through Punch Brothers I’ve worked on arrangements of classical music. We’ve done a lot of (Johann Sebastian) Bach and some (Claude) Debussy and even some (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart.
So to me, getting to pingpong back and forth between these different styles, depending on the gig, has been something that really keeps it interesting. I feel like there’s something to be learned from all of these styles in ways that actually can be incorporated into something that’s seemingly disparate.
For example, I feel like my bluegrass improvising got so much better just from working on Bach violin transcriptions. Putting myself through those paces, as far as learning some of that music, really opened up doors to play other styles of music. I’ve long said that the Kenny Baker record that I made would have never been possible if it wasn’t for some of the more far-reaching and technically ambitious music that happened within Punch Brothers.
VPAC: Beyond the banjo we hear you play a couple other instruments and sing — wow that’s a lot — do you go through phases of focusing on one, or are you always working on each?
PIKELNY: There are definitely phases. Banjo has been kind of my most constant companion over the years, but sometimes taking a break and working on another instrument can be really satisfying or really fruitful.
I love playing flat-top guitar. I’ve been in a phase lately playing a lot of Telecaster at home, electric guitar. There’s never a phase where I’m purely in one mode or another. Sometimes it’s tempting to just sit at home and play Telecaster all day, but I have to keep my banjo chops up, as well.
VPAC: You’ve been in a number of bands and are now performing solo. Is it nice to be on your own, or do you miss the camaraderie of the group setting?
PIKELNY: Again, the variety of these experiences I think is what keeps a life in music sustainable. I absolutely miss the camaraderie I have when I’m touring with a band like Punch Brothers when I’m out doing a solo show. Usually that camaraderie exists that would be between an entire band while traveling is now just between me and a sound engineer, so I’m lucky that I’ve had some really wonderful people to spend all those hours with.
I really enjoy the challenge of being on stage alone. It affords me the opportunity to do things as part of a show that would never make their way into a set list if I was on stage with other musicians. Even if it was just a duo show, I don’t think I would be necessarily as long-winded or wouldn’t launch into some stories on stage. I feel like the material and the scope of the project justifies the personnel, and in this case, it being just me.
VPAC: You have an album that was just released on March 3. Tell us a little about that.
PIKELNY: “Universal Favorite,” it’s the fourth solo album I have ever made, as far as solo albums under my own name, but it’s the first truly, truly solo album I’ve ever made. Similar to how I will appear on the tour, there’s no band and there’s no accompaniment. I recorded this record live in Nashville, with no overdubs — live in the studio, that is — and playing and singing at the same time.
It’s a collection of new, original music that I’ve written for the banjo and some covers of songs that I’ve loved for a long time that I’ve worked up either on banjo or guitar or a few other weird four-string instruments from the ’20s, a lot of vintage instruments to keep me company. So while there’s no band on this record, I feel like I have all these characters and a bunch of these old instruments on the record.
This record really gave me a chance to kind of make an argument of who I am in my core musically. If I’m in a room with my instruments all by myself, what would I put forward? What is my message, and what is my story? I feel like through the original banjo instrumentals, I’m making an argument of who I am as a banjo player and how I approach this instrument and what I see as the musical and sonic possibilities of this instrument.
With the covers on this record, I see myself more as curator. I’m getting to pick music that I really enjoy and also music that I feel like I can maybe shine a little bit of a different light on through my interpretation. Through these covers, it’s also showing my cards. You could argue it like I’m showing my cards, or at least highlighting the path that I’ve taken; it’s autobiographical in that sense.
By choosing that “Old Banjo” cover — I learned that song when I was 8 years old. That experience of learning this song from a Chicago folk singer when I was 8 years old really informed the musician, who I am, and kind of set me on this path.
The other covers that I’ve chosen, whether it’s a Roy Acuff song or “Sweet Sunny South,” the old song “Sweet Sunny South,” I feel like each one of those is a little bit of a clue. They make kind of a trail of breadcrumbs to how I got to this spot. To me, it’s a very, very personal record, it’s very much just my own story and my own take on this music, and I will take all the blame for it.