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Noam Pikelny's experiment proves most successful

Brighton Music Hall, Boston, December 14, 2011

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Band leader Noam Pikelny proclaimed to the sold-out crowd near the end of the second set, "This was a complete experiment. We didn't know if anyone would be here to see us tonight. It means a lot to us."

Well, ace banjo man Pikelny may not have known, but apparently a bunch of others - 300 others - apparently did. The experiment was an unqualified success.

That shouldn't be any surprise whatsoever given the quality of the band. Pikelny may be touring behind his first solo release since 2004, "Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail," but the beauty of the music - a combo of bluegrass, country and acoustic music - rested with the band. Pikleny certainly played a mean banjo, but this night wasn't just about him.

The band consisted of Jessie Cobb (ex-Infamous Stringduster) on mandolin; Mark Schatz on upright bass; Chris Eldredge (Punch Brothers) on acoustic guitar, Gabe Witcher (Punch Brothers) on fiddle and Aiofe O'Donovan (Crooked Still) on lead vocals.

Everyone stood out on their respective instruments with Pikelny giving ample space to all to showcase their skills. Witcher's fiddle (he particularly stood out on Man Chicken from Pikelny's first disc) and Cobb's mandolin particularly sparked the songs. Pikelny stood out with Cobb on Milford's Reel with just the two of them playing. Cluck Old Hen, which opened the second set was dynamic even though it was just Schatz and Pikelny.

O'Donovan, lead vocalist for Crooked Still, was an appropriate match for the material. She has a bit breathy voice and worked best when she turned it up a notch, which was a good chunk of the time. Witcher has a strong voice, well-suited to country the band sometimes applaud and bluegrass.

Pikelny was not a singer - he let O'Donovan, Witcher and Eldridge take over, but he lent his voice to backing vocals on Will You Miss Me, warning the crowd, "This bring us to the point of the show where we are not going to refund tickets for any reason because I'm going to sing." He didn't blow his backing vocals too much at all, but it was easy to see why he let others handle that job.

He was a good front man, although, as his sense of humor came through time and again in his comments. He joked at O'Donovan's expense (at one point, he toured with Crooked Still), while offering a bunch of humorous comments.

The stellar night of music closed out with the band's take on Bill Monroe's The Wheel Hoss Fiddle players Darol Anger and Alex Hargreaves came out on stage with a ferocious triple fiddle attack leading the song.

Pikelny said afterward that he hoped to go back on the road to the West Coast with the band in the future. He can't claim that it will be an experiment because he already has test run it, and this night proved that he passed with flying colors.