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No joke, banjo man Pikelny excels

One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine, February 11, 2016

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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To most sound-minded individuals, the notion of a solo banjo concert is mildly daunting. Banjo jokes are second only to lawyer jokes in the American zeitgeist, so Noam Pikelny, a master banjo player doubtless knows what he is getting into when he presents his "One Man, One Banjo" tour.

Pikelny's playing answers all questions. The five string banjo, in his hands, is at once a harp, a mandolin, a sweet cruiser of tasty rolls. Pikelny knows the neck up and down and handles it with aplomb.

None of this should surprise. Pikelny has played for years in Punch Brothers, the bluegrass virtuoso collective. He's a Grammy winner (for "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe") and was the first winner of the Steve Martin annual banjo prize.

Pikelny sold out the inviting One Longfellow Square room on a sub-freezing, snowy midweek night in February. That alone qualifies him for an award of a different stripe. Having heard countless banjo jokes himself, Pikelny offers a few more, mostly at his own expense. The show was part standup and mostly extraordinary music.

Pikelny is working out some new material on this solo tour, so some of the songs have yet to be named (according to Pikelny "the highpoint in the evolution of any of my songs"). But there were plenty of familiar tunes, including a couple from the "Kenny Baker" record ('Stoney Lonesome") and from Punch Brothers ("How To Grow a Woman From The Ground").

A medley of reels excelled, as did an encore performance (in collaboration with opener Kristin Andreassen, of Bill Keith's "Beating Around The Bush." Keith, who died in 2015, fostered a post-Scruggs banjo ethos that impacts players like Pikelny even now. Pikelny shared with the crowd that he first met and played with Keith a couple of decades ago at a banjo workshop in Portland.

A trombone served as a silent, ironic centerpiece to the stage show; Pikelny never played it or referred to it. But, Pikelny took turns on two vintage four string guitars: a plectrum steel bodied model and a stunning Gretsch solid body tenor, each of which produced beautiful tones. Pikelny, not known as a singer, nonetheless performed a creditable "Old 97" on acoustic guitar. His flatpicking was enviable. The estimable Dave Sinko designed and engineered the sound, to great effect.

Andreessen's opening set was clever and beautiful, displaying the former Uncle Earl member's considerable songwriting talents.