Noam Pikelny is the most ingratiating musical iconoclast you’re likely to come across. He has deep roots in the Americana genre, and his playing, on banjo in most contexts, is precise and brilliant.
Pikelny has produced a string of outstanding solo records, most recently “Universal Favorite”. Despite the success of these solo efforts (“Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” was an IBMA Album of the year and received a Grammy nomination), Pikelny is best known for his work with the uber-Americana group The Punch Brothers. Like a member of the 1919 Black Sox, his Punch affiliation will no doubt lead his obituary, but his solo work is pleasing, pleasant and adventurous.
Pikelny displays a wry sense of humor that serves his craft well. This is after all, the guy who includes “My Mother Thinks I Am A Lawyer” in his solo stage shows. The show also features a trombone at rear center stage, which is never removed from its stand.
“Universal Favorite”, in itself a dig at the ephemeral nature of fame for a concert banjoist, has a lot of fun with the material. “Bye”, a simple Elliot Smith piece which opens the collection, is bright but technically ambitious. Close on in ‘Universal Favorite” is an extended paean to outlaws and ner-do-wells of American music, “Folk Bloodbath” calls out all manner of miscreants and is delivered with Pikelny’s under-appreciated (mostly by him) vocals.
According to the liner notes to “Universal Favorite” Pikelny played all the instrumentation on the album. He displays broad proficiency on the non-banjo pieces, and his aforementioned singing voice is self-assured, especially for someone who generally backs off the vocals among his Punch brethren.
To banjo fans, and they do exist, Pikelny is easy to like. “Hen of The Woods” is a romp and roll on the banjo, smooth, flashy, but not pretentious.”Moretown Hop” and “Sugar Maple” admirably deliver on the same terms. “Waveland” is flat-out astonishing, turning the banjo, in Pikelny’s hands, into a cross between a Dobro and a harp.
Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll be a Long Time Gone)” combines his courtly baritone with a skittering banjo line that pays tribute to the original. “My Tears Don’t Show” offers Pikelny playing a bit of Texas swing on the guitar.
Fellow musical polymath (and Punch Brother) Gabe Witcher produced, but it seems as if Pikelny controlled the whole affair, conjuring up a bunch of songs which satisfied his curiosity and challenge the listener to revel in his virtuosity while cracking a smile or two.