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Noam Pikelny Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail (2011)

  Noam Pikelny – Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail 
Location: Chicago, Illinois ~ Brooklyn, NYC
Born: February 27, 1981
Labels: Compass Records (http://compassrecords.com/noam-pikelny)
Release date: October 25, 2011
Credits:
Featuring Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Chris Eldridge, & Mark Schatz, with Special Guests: Steve Martin, Chris Thile, Aoife O'Donovan, & Bryan Sutton. Produced by Gabe Witcher.
 In addition to an all star cast of instrumentalists including Bryan Sutton (guitar), Chris Thile (mandolin), Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle) and Jerry Douglas (dobro), he also shares the spotlight with guest vocalists Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) on a delightful rendering of Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird” and Tim O’Brien on a re-working of the Henry Thomas classic “Bob Mckinney.”  Other standout tracks include a banjo duet with Steve Martin on the old-time standard “Cluck Old Hen” and a mind-boggling, instrumental powerhouse trio featuring Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton on the original “Bear Dog Grit.”  Rounding out the band is fiddler Stuart Duncan, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, and bassist Mark Schatz.  The release marks Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher's debut as producer.

 
Former Leftover Salmon banjo player and current Punch Brother Noam Pikelny release his second album Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail via Compass Records.
Bluegrass is having its own private revival in 2011. Unlike the last one, this one is not driven by a pop culture movement, nor is it centered around a return to roots. This year has seen any number of amazing albums raging from the sparsely traditional to lush and layered New Grass. Noam Pikelny brings a bit of both to his music. As a founding member of The Punch Brothers, with Nickle Creek’s Chris Thile, he is no stranger to composing music that pushes genre boundaries. On his second solo album he sticks to music that is more classically bluegrass, but with an edge and a humor that reveals his wider range. Pikelny’s second album is a fiery example of what Bluegrass can be at its best. Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is a strong slice of Appalachian roots, wrapped with an impeccable banjo bow.
The album is filled to the brim with tight and tasty slices of Bluegrass, with only two tracks in the bunch featuring a vocalist. Pikelny penned eight of the thirteen tracks and arranged a further two. The few covers range as far afield as the traditional Old Cluck Hen and Tom Waits’ Fish and Bird. Pikelny has a deft hand to the lighter side of bluegrass, crafting a collection of complex, densely layered instrumentals replete with a layer of whimsey too often missing from a genre grown somber with the weight of its own intentions. By avoiding vocals, Pikelny also avoids the high lonesome trap that many of his peers fall into. The album opens with the bright and jaunty “Jim Thompson’s Horse,” a song that lopes along much like the titular character passing an early spring morning. “My Mother Thinks I’m A Lawyer” brims with such lively and whimsical musical choices that the listener can hardly help but to laugh out loud. “Milford’s Reel” sticks quite closely to its named genre, but has a good deal of fun within those confines. Amid the tricks and good humor, there are moments for quiet reflection. “Day Down” balances between the droning notes of Mark Shatz’s bass and the delicate plucking of Tim O’Brien’s mandolin. “The Broken Drought,” with its stately, minor-keyed melody, plays like a quiet and beautiful music box. Pikelny has an incredible voice as a composer, and he stretches it on this album.
Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail features a strong collection of guest stars, the number and star power of which might have over shadowed a weaker album. Pikelny starts with his band, filling it with names like Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas. O’Brien even takes a turn on vocals, singing a Pikelny arrangement of the Henry Thomas classic “Bob McKinney.” Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan shows up to lend her high, clear soprano to “Fish and Bird.” Occasionally Pikelny’s banjo wants to come out and play, and it needs a proper companion. Steve Martin’s Clawhamer banjo challenges it to a duel in “Old Cluck Hen.” The instrument spends the whole of “Bear Dog Grit” chasing Chris Thile’s mandolin and Bryan Sutton’s guitar. The soft, gentle melody of “Boathouse on the Lullwater” creates the perfect atmosphere for Jerry Douglas’ Dobro to shine. On the whole, the volume of guests on Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail gives the whole album an air of a highly polished and incredibly well played jam session.
Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is the perfect album for people who love bluegrass. It features some of the best and tightest picking released on an album this year, player by artists who truly enjoy every note that comes out of their instruments. Its a fun album, full of songs that convey humor and delight only occasionally interspersed with more sedate, emotionally darker moments. It is that rare instrumental album that stands up and demands to be taken as more than background music. With Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, Noam Pikelny establishes himself as one of the best young voices in Bluegrass music, and he does it all without singing a note.
Website: http://www.noampikelny.com/
Leftover Salmon:
Biography by Jason Ankeny
The self-described "polyethnic cajun slamgrass" group Leftover Salmon formed in Colorado in the early '90s as a merger of two area acts, the Left Hand String Band and the Salmonheads. Comprised of vocalist/guitarist/washboard player Vince Herman, banjoist Mark Vann, mandolinist/guitarist Drew Emmit, bassist Tye North and drummer Michael Wooten, the band's good-timey earned a grassroots following on the festival circuit and resulted in their 1993 self-released debut Bridges to Bert. Ask the Fish, a 1995 live effort recorded at Boulder, Colorado's Fox Theatre, helped Leftover Salmon earn a deal with the Hollywood label, which in 1997 released the group's major label bow Euphoria. The Nashville Sessions followed two years later. Upon issuing the Live album in spring 2002, Leftover Salmon experienced some restructuring within the band. North and Wooten were no longer part of Leftover Salmon. Greg Garrison stepped in to play bass, Jose Martinez was added on drums and newcomer Bill McKay joined on keyboards.
Noam Pikelny:
Noam delivers a set that is as dazzling for its virtuosity as it is engaging for its melodic sensibilities. In addition to an all star cast of instrumentalists including Bryan Sutton (guitar), Chris Thile (mandolin), Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle) and Jerry Douglas (dobro), he also shares the spotlight with guest vocalists Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) on a delightful rendering of Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird” and Tim O’Brien on a re-working of the Henry Thomas classic “Bob Mckinney.” Other standout tracks include a banjo duet with Steve Martin on the old-time standard “Cluck Old Hen” and a mind-boggling, instrumental powerhouse trio featuring Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton on the original “Bear Dog Grit.” Rounding out the band is fiddler Stuart Duncan, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, and bassist Mark Schatz. The release marks Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher's debut as producer.


Track Listing:
01. Jim Thompson's Horse
02. My Mother Thinks I'm a Lawyer
03. Fish and Bird (featuring Aoife O'Donovan)
04. Cluck Old Hen (featuring Steve Martin)
05. Boathouse on the Lullwater (featuring Jerry Douglas)
06. Bear Dog Grit (featuring Chris Thile & Bryan Sutton)
07. Day Down
08. Milford's Reel
09. Bob McKinney (featuring Tim O'Brien)
10. Pineywoods
11. The Broken Drought
12. All Git Out
Kungfustore.com: http://punchbrothers.kungfustore.com/category/411-beat-the-devil-and-carry-a-rail-preorder/product/3134-beat-the-devil-and-carry-a-rail-cd-pik01
About Noam Pikelny:
Though Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is banjo player Noam Pikelny’s second solo disc, it represents something of a new beginning. Even more revelatory than his 2004 debut In the Maze, it captures an artist as he unveils a developed and assured voice as musician and composer. In 2010, actor-banjo player-author Steve Martin awarded Pikelny the first Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, calling Pikelny, “a player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.” Beat The Devil is virtuosic in execution but is warm, amiable and approachable in feel. Pikelny is backed by an all-star band of old friends and long-time heroes, including fellow Punch Brothers Gabe Witcher and Chris Eldridge, bassist Mark Schatz, fiddle player Stuart Duncan, vocalist-mandolinist Tim O’Brien, and dobro player Jerry Douglas – all of whom boast impressive credentials along with Grammy nominations and other accolades in the worlds of bluegrass, folk and country. Guest stars include Punch Brothers founder and mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Bryan Sutton, violin prodigy Alex Hargreaves, and fellow banjo player Steve Martin, who befriended Pikelny through the New York City music scene, and invited Punch Brothers to open his 2010 Summer tour.
Pikelny recorded Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail in Nashville in April of 2011, but the album spent years in gestation, given Pikelny’s demanding schedule. Making a second album had long been on Pikelny’s to-do list. Since 2006, however, he had been primarily devoting his creative energies to Punch Brothers, the prodigiously skilled quintet that despite the stringband format, defies all genres, becoming as the Village Voice recently called them, “one of the greatest young bands in the country, bluegrass or otherwise.” The growing success of Punch Brothers, and the quintet’s daunting touring itinerary, left little time for individual projects. “The time I had to myself when I wasn't on the road or in the studio with Punch Brothers was mostly spent catching up on sleep and making sure I had clean clothes”. In fact, Pikelny realized his first solo album just weeks before first meeting Chris Thile, then a member of Nickel Creek, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in June of 2004.
That chance meeting paved the way for the formation of Punch Brothers. Their sights were set high, first embarking upon Thile's album-length four-movement piece The Blind Leaving the Blind, which remains a cornerstone of the band. Pikelny was provoked, tested, inspired, and ultimately, changed by his newfound collaborators: “I was being challenged in so many ways – technically as a banjo player, conceptually as a musician. I couldn't have asked for a better situation. It was an amazing opportunity, I was being pushed so hard by the band that I felt that I was having to redefine myself on the fly as a banjo player. When I listen to my playing before Punch Brothers, to my ears, it sounds like a different person as far as feel, approach, technique, improvising... Playing with those guys even inspired me to go out and find a great old instrument.  I think my whole sound was going through a transformation.”


Resuming solo work in the midst of Punch Brothers commitments, Pikelny drew upon those experiences, infusing his album with a unique instrumental voice, but within a more traditional context.  “This metamorphosis brought upon by the Punch Brothers repertoire, interestingly enough extended itself even when I would return to playing more traditional music.  This new understanding of the banjo was creeping into to whatever I was playing.  So even if I was rendering a classic Earl Scruggs banjo tune or improvising over an old fiddle tune, the impact of Punch Brothers had become evident in my playing. I felt like it was high time to put together a record that was a little bit more connected to my roots and use some of my own instrumentals to showcase an updated version, if you will, of my banjo playing.”
On Beat The Devil, Pikelny offers eight original pieces – from intensely focused, fast-moving numbers like “All Git Out” and “Bear Dog Grit” to more pastoral, gently paced tunes like “Boathouse on the Lullwater” and  “The Broken Drought.” He recasts the frequently-recorded Appalachian folk tune, “Cluck Old Hen,” as an instrumental duet between Pikelny (on bluegrass banjo) and Steve Martin (on clawhammer banjo). Tim O’Brien adds lead vocals to 1920s-era songster Henry Thomas’ “Bob McKinney,” Pikelny also fashions a lovely cover of Tom Waits’  “Fish and Bird,” featuring a heartbreaking, vocal performance from Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O'Donovan.  Pikelny calls the track “a special tune on a couple of different levels. Tom Waits is a recent discovery of mine. Of course, it was all out there in front of me, but I had never caught on before how profound Tom Waits’ music is. Unfortunately, it was all too recent of an epiphany. The only other personal discovery on this level has been falling in love with John Hartford’s music over the last three or four years. He was one of the most unique and virtuosic banjo players, and wrote some of the greatest songs of all time. These guys are the gold standard, if you ask me. On ‘Fish and Bird’ there was a sweet collision of these worlds, as the key Aoife wanted to sing in warranted playing a low-tuned banjo, something that was one of John Hartford's signature sounds. When I got to Nashville, I asked Bela Fleck if he would consider loaning me John Hartford's old banjo that he acquired after John's passing.  Bela was gracious enough to make it available. I was hesitant to ask, but Bela said that’s exactly what Hartford would want, for people to be using his instruments to make music. I was really honored by that. It was a meaningful, yet unforeseen union of the music of two men who have really moved me as of late.”


Pikelny says Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail was deeply informed by several people who inspired him as he was coming up in the ranks, and he feels lucky to have recruited many of them for the sessions: “I became really excited about the idea of reconnecting with some of my friends and heroes in Nashville that I had only gotten to play with informally at festivals, guys like Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas & Mark Schatz.  It was the thrill of a lifetime to share a stage with these people, but I had never gotten to be in the studio with any of them. Based on the material I was amassing, I realized that I should make a somewhat traditional banjo record and call these guys. I wanted that experience, to be in the studio with these heroes for a week, not just because of the music we would capture, but to get to know these guys better, to hear their stories. They shed so much light on the history of the music. It was so meaningful to get a better understanding of these folks who I've looked up to for years, to learn more about their background and motivation. I came out of this experience with so much more than the files that became this record.”
Noam called on his Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher to produce the album. “When I first started imagining this record, I knew I wanted Gabe to produce it,” Pikelny says. “He has been such a powerful force during the recording of the Punch Brothers records. I had been extremely impressed by Gabber's poise when we've been in the studio. Also I've always taken note of how extraordinarily committed he has been to absorbing as much studio and recording wisdom from the ridiculously talented people we've been lucky enough to be around while in the studio. I couldn’t think of anybody who knows my playing better than Gabe. This is the first album where he is the official producer. I thought that would be a healthy challenge. I knew I made the right choice when a couple hours into the first day while I found Gabe outside, on a break, pacing around the parking lot smoking a cigar while on a cell phone. Now that's a producer.”
Rising to the occasion is in many ways a theme of the album, and the underlying meaning of its title.

Noam Pikelny and his Nechville in Richmond with Chris Thile.

 Pikelny, now based in Brooklyn, explains: “I've always loved the South and Appalachia. I obviously have fallen in love with the music, but also many other aspects of the heritage. I always love learning some of the old expressions and phrases and have made a hobby of searching through books of southern regionalisms. “Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail” stems from a bizarre and antiquated rural tradition of handicapping whoever is favored in a race or a contest by having them carry a rail. Yes, quite unbelievable – but hey, you can’t argue with something if it's in a reference book. It can mean two things. One would be to beat someone decisively, a clear victory; the other would be to triumph against all odds. The second meaning appeals to me more as something that relates to this record and the music on it. Not on a super literal level, but it definitely applies to the actual task of getting this record made.  While the album was made over the course of two months, it had been seven whole years since my last solo effort. In Punch Brothers, we had established this brain trust; we had become comfortable relying on each other to put music together as a group. It’s an extremely powerful thing to have access to that, and with each year that passed it became more daunting how to step away and finally record another project of mine. Having Gabe on-board as producer helped lessen the shock, but I was still forced out of what had become my natural habitat. So this record is a little personal triumph of mine, something of my own that makes me proud.”

Compass Records Group

 

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