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Feature Thu Dec 09 2010
It's been a big month for Punch Brothers' banjo player and Chicago native Noam Pikelny. As if his current bands' two Grammy nominations weren't enough, Pikelny also appeared on Letterman to receive the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. When I spoke to him this week over the phone he was gearing up for a U.S. tour with the Punch Brothers, which stops in Chicago this weekend, December 11th and 12th.
"I think it's a great thing for the banjo and for bluegrass music," Pikelny told me about the award. The banjoist found out he'd been selected as the award's inaugural recipient via a letter signed by the board of professional players and musicologists involved in the decision process, several of whom Pikelny described as musical role models. The board consisted of Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Bela Fleck and, of course, Steve Martin.
Pikelny has been playing banjo since his childhood. He grew up on Chicago's north side before moving with his family to Skokie during his teenage years. The idea of playing banjo actually began with Pikelny's older brother. After seeing Chicago bluegrass band Buck's Stove and Range Company perform at his school, Pikelny's brother decided to take up the mandolin. A couple years later when Noam took an interest in learning an instrument his mother suggested he choose one that would allow for the brothers to play together. Soon after, Pikelny bought his first banjo at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music where he began taking lessons and attending Friday night jam sessions regularly. He became even more involved with the Chicago bluegrass scene once he began taking lessons from bluegrass lifer Greg Cahill (banjoist for The Special Consensus) in Skokie. "There was no shortage of outlets for learning banjos and for folk music," said Pikelny. "The community was really supportive of me. I would go and sit in with various bands in Chicago and would eventually make some good connections."
Those good connections would eventually put Pikelny in contact with Chris Thile, best known for his time spent as mandolin player/vocalist of the now defunct Nickel Creek, and the other bluegrass musicians that would eventually become The Punch Brothers.
The Punch Brothers (photo by C. Taylor Crothers)
The band was first enlisted by Thile to help flesh out his ambitious four-movement piece "The Blind Leaving the Blind," a piece that would eventually become the focal point for the Punch Brothers debut album Punch, released in early 2008 on Warner Bros. imprint Nonesuch Records.
"At that time [the members of the Punch Brothers] were all spread out across the country," said Pikelny of the recording and writing process for the band's first album. "We would get together to rehearse 'The Blind Leaving the Blind.' That was our first experiment. We set the standard pretty high for ourselves as far as what we were willing to attack. From the beginning we were doing things that were really challenging."
Flash forward two years to the recording of PB's follow-up album, Antifogmatic. After the success of Punch, the Punch Brothers began to realize the benefits of centrally locating the band's members. So Pikelny and the rest of the quintet began calling New York City home. As a result of the relocation, Antifogmatic, an album that Pikelny described as "extremely collaborative," was born.
"We just got into a room and started tossing ideas around," he explained. "We really just treated it like a 9 to 5 job. Every day we'd be writing music together. That record to me is a reflection of our time together in New York City as a band. We could just show up without an agenda and just see what would happen. I don't think it would have been possible if we were still spread apart."
Obviously, the process worked. Last week, the Punch Brothers welcomed two Grammy nominations. "Pride," a collaboration with Dierks Bentley and Del McCoury that appeared on Dierks Bentley's latest album Up On the Ridge received a nomination for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals and "New Chance Blues," a bonus track offered on deluxe editions of Antifogmatic received a nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
"The Punch Brothers bonus track nomination was completely unexpected," Pikelny confessed. "We play it at our live show a lot, but it didn't make it onto the actual record. We cut that song last minute late one night."
With so much happening in the way of Punch Brothers, Pikelny and his bandmates find it hard to find time to work on other projects, but he assured me that they all have something in the works. For instance, Thile is in the process of writing music for an upcoming project with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. Also, keep an eye out for a solo banjo record from Pikelny in the near future. (The 53rd Annual Grammy Awards take place on Feburary 13, 2011.)
The Punch Brothers began a new U.S. tour in support of Antifogmatic this week. On December 11 and 12 Pikelny and co. will make their first appearance at Lincoln Hall. Saturday's (Dec. 11) show starts at 9pm and is limited to a 21+ crowd, however the following night's performance begins at 7pm and is open to all ages. Tickets for both shows are $22 in advance, $25 at the door.