Banjo maestro Noam Pikelny returns to Barking Legs
If you go
› What: Noam Pikelny: One Man, One Banjo, One Joke.
› When: 7:30 p.m. today, Feb. 4.
› Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
› Admission: $21.
› Phone: 423-624-5347.
› Website: barkinglegs.org.
› Artist website: noampikelny.com.
2004: “In the Maze”
2011: “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail”
2013: “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe”
Noam Pikelny must not be overly fond of his comfort zone.
A master of the banjo — and inaugural recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass — Pikelny is one of the founding members of progressive acoustic ensemble Punch Brothers, a band notorious for using traditional bluegrass instrumentation in unexpected ways.
The 34-year-old Chicago native is rarely content to do what’s expected of a banjo player. His most recent release — 2013’s “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” — was built around the concept of rearranging a legendary fiddle player’s covers of bluegrass mandolin standards using the banjo, an instrument that fits about as naturally as boots on a goose. Yet Pikelny pulled it off with aplomb, earning both Album of the Year and Banjo Player of the Year nods from the International Bluegrass Music Association in the process.
Tonight, Feb. 4, Pikelny will return to Barking Legs Theater to kick off “One Man, One Banjo, One Joke,” which he describes in his cavernous baritone as a “thought experiment.” For the first time in a nearly 15-year career, he will be all alone onstage instead of as part of an ensemble.
“With this show, I have an opportunity to reference bluegrass music, old-time music, country music, pedal-steel music,” he says. “In some ways, the show will be biographical in that I’ll be showing my cards in a way and displaying all the things that have made me the musician that I am.”
Last year, Pikelny was laser-focused on Punch Brothers and supporting the band’s Grammy Award-nominated 2015 project,”Phosphorescent Blues.” Looking ahead, however, 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Noam, he quips.
And initially, that prospect was terrifying.
“It’s so new that once I agreed to this idea or pitched it to the team of people who helped me put it together, I said, ‘OK, how am I going to fill 90 minutes?'” he says. “It’s just been a process of whittling away at what I think I’m good at.
“What’s been really fun about it is that it’s given me an opportunity to make an argument about what are my favorite things about music — what are my favorite songs or styles or approaches to music? Because I have the whole show, it allows me to touch on all these various influences.”
Despite the tour’s branding, Pikelny says he’ll be playing and singing — another first — through a mix of covers and original material on a range of “oddball plectrum instruments.”
“There’s a whole variety of instruments onstage that help provide some textural variations. Nobody wants to hear two hours’ worth of banjo music,” he laughs. “I don’t want to hear two hours’ worth of banjo music.”
Barking Legs has become one of Pikelny’s default testing grounds for the many projects with which he’s been involved. In 2011, he used the Chattanooga venue as a launching point for an all-star tour with Aoife O’Donovan, Jesse Cobb, Gabe Witcher and Chris Ethridge. In 2014, the theater was one of his first stops on a duo tour with fiddling legend Stuart Duncan.
Although tonight’s show is technically the first scheduled stop on his solo debut, Pikelny says he’s already had a trial run at his home in Nashville, so local fans shouldn’t fear being the unwitting subjects of his latest thought experiment.
“Anyone in Chattanooga who is worried that they’ll be thrown to the wolves can rest assured that the Nashville people already had to suffer through that,” he chuckles. “I’m really looking forward to this. Right now, it’s much more exciting than nerve-wracking, but that was probably flipped about eight months ago.”
Contact Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at@PhillipsCTFP.