ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Sunday, September 3, 2006
PIKELNY IS PROS’ TOP BANJO PICKER
Almost an “Acoustic Superhero”
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
Starting high school can seem momentous for anyone, but banjoist Noam Pikelny’s inaugural day at Niles North in Skokie, 11 years ago this week, was doubly memorable--his picture, in color no less, was in the paper.
“My freshman year,” recalls Pikelny, “on my first day, that review [of his band, Minor Bluegrass] was on the front page of the Arts section of the Trib. I was walking around the halls that day expecting people to notice me or something--everyone would have seen this article! Of course, not even the teachers had seen it. But eventually, people kind of got into the fact that I played banjo.”
People who are into that fact today include vocalist/bassist John Cowan--who knows about banjo players, having played with Bela Fleck in the 1980s edition of the New Grass Revival--and mandolin superstar Chris Thile, of Nickel Creek.
Pikelny has been in the John Cowan Band for the past year and for their exceptional disc, “New Tattoo” (Pinecastle), but will be leaving soon, in part to dedicate more time to projects with Thile.
“He wants to join what I refer to as the Legion of Acoustic Superheroes,” says Cowan. “Noam has more integrity than anyone I’ve met his age, I hate it that he’s going to leave, but I kinda knew when I got him, not unlike Bela, how long could I hold on to him?”
Thile’s fifth solo album, “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground” (Sugar Hill, out Sept. 12), features the band Thile formed specifically for this project--young virtuosi that, lead by Thile’s mandolin and vocals, encompass the classic bluegrass quintet: Pikelny, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, and bassist Greg Garrison.
Cuts such as their cover of The Strokes’ ‘Heart in a Cage,’ packing more raw power than the original despite the absence of drums or amps, combine to make “How to Grow…” state-of-the-art Newgrass music. Much of that track’s success rests on Pikelny’s recurring banjo lick.
“I get this feeling from Noam that I envy,” Thile says, “that ultimately, there is really nothing that Noam can’t do…. There’s a diligence that I find to be utterly remarkable. A lot of times, that diligence comes in the absence of talent--people that are that diligent because they have to be, where Noam is one of those very rare musicians that is that diligent in addition to being ludicrously talented.”
“He’s doing this thing that Bela used to do,” says Cowan about Pikelny, “which is, he’s playing his banjo from the time he gets up ‘til the time he goes to bed, just non stop.”
If Pikelny, who grew up in Skokie, tires of the inevitable comparisons to Fleck, he doesn’t show it. Having studied the pre-bluegrass, clawhammer banjo as a youngster at the Old Town School of Folk Music and at Evanston’s Hogeye, it was hearing Fleck and his Flecktones at Navy Pier in the early 1990s that started Pikelny on the path that is now leading him into uncharted territory. He was also lucky to discover that Greg Cahill, the founder and leader of Special Consensus, for decades the Chicago area’s premier national bluegrass act, lived mere blocks away, especially fortunate for a kid not yet old enough to drive.
“Greg was immeasurable in my progression as a musician,” says Pikelny about his former teacher. “I really enjoy finding a way to play something on the banjo that hasn’t been played before, or an arrangement that hasn’t been played before, and I think Greg was the guy who sparked that for me.”
After early local experience with Lora Hebert and the Hoosier Prairie Band, with Dad driving each week to and from Valparaiso, Indiana, and Minor Bluegrass, which included fiddler Casey Driessen, another whose star is in ascent, Pikelny headed downstate to University of Illinois and a computer engineering major. He found time for the band of composer and guitarist Slavek Hanzlik, including five weeks in the summer of 2002 touring the Czech Republic. Immediately thereafter, the musical connections Pikelny had forged in Champaign lead to an offer to replace the late Mark Van in the jamband juggernaut, Leftover Salmon.
“Going from playing at a local college bar to playing the sold out House of Blues in Chicago, or the Fillmore in Denver, it was very exhilarating and kind of scary at first,” says Pikelny, who sites Leftover Salmon leader Vince Herman as a major influence, particularly on the less tangible aspects of being a musician.
Pikelny’s first solo album, “In the Maze” (Compass), further spread the word that a new picker with something to say was on the scene. (“In The Maze” was included in this newspaper’s 2004 year-end Bluegrass Top 10 CDs list.)
Then Cowan called.
“I just worshipped New Grass Revival,” says Pikelny of the band that boasted, besides Cowan and Fleck, Sam Bush and Pat Flynn, and to his eternal regret, broke up before Pikelny heard them live. “I had put them up there on a pedestal, with G.I. Joes and Thundercats.”
“[Playing in the John Cowan Band] was different than playing with Leftover Salmon,” says Pikelny. “It was really my first time playing in a real bluegrass ensemble…with guys who are master bluegrass musicians. I think playing music with Cowan has gotten me to the stage where my playing appealed to Chris and he wanted me to play on his record.”
Though they’d jammed a bit in the past, Thile says, “There is no experience from the last several years that transcends that moment last summer at [the] Telluride [festival] where I re-met Noam.”
Stepping on stage for an after-hours jam, Thile spotted Pikelny.
“We started playing,” says Thile, “and every note that Noam played was something I’d wished I’d played. I was just going, ‘Where on earth did you come from?!?’”
The two continued jamming in Thile’s hotel room until past dawn. “I just could not believe that this guy existed…. We played fiddle tunes, we played Radiohead, there was a little bit of classical in there, some jazz…. And so, after that, I began plotting the course that this ensemble would take.”
There’s no way to predict the course Pikelny’s own musical life will take, but what is certain is that some of the best in the business want to be a part of it.
“Where do you go with this?” asks Cowan. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out. In my mind, [the banjo’s evolution] goes: Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, and now, Noam Pikelny.”
[Photo: Noam Pikelny, who grew up in Skokie, is an in-demand banjo player who can be heard on mandolin superstar Chris Thile’s new CD, “How To Grow A Woman From the Ground.”]